Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 12(ish) Days of Anime: Episode 26 of Ashita no Nadja

As I said yesterday, I still watch anime for kids and this year I had a chance to watch one of the "50 episodes of awesome" shojo shows, Ashita no Nadja. It's a really great shojo adventure show, set in either the late 1800s or early 1900s (I think the show did give an actual date late into the show, I want to say shortly before World War I), Nadja has grown up in England believing she's an orphan only to learn that her mother is alive and she joins up with a group of traveling entertainers to go all around Europe to find more clues about her. That doesn't necessarily sound like a recipe for awesome or even enough of a story to fill up 50 episodes, it's not, and the show spends quite a few episodes in it's first half going around to various countries and having the characters just meet people, it's a bit like filler but it's not unpleasant (which is one of the main complaints about filler) and nearly every character comes back later in the series anyway. But you can tell this is a Toei show because it has very important plot revelations, and emotional beats, at very specific parts of the story, the 13th, 26th, and 39th episodes which make the first quarter, first half, and three-quarters mark of the stories and that kind of pacing is something they still use in their Precure series today. And once you hit that 26th episode the show really starts to pull in it's loose ends, introduce it's true villain, and really settles in for a continuous, emotionally-wringing ride that lasts, with very few breaks, until the final episode.

But first, a breather! The 26th episode seems to start out as a breather episode, Nadja and the rest of the Dandelion Troupe are in Spain and it's hot. Everyone is taking a siesta but Nadja has a bit too much energy and so she sets off on her own and runs into an old friend Francis Harcourt, a young British nobleman who seems to be a dead ringer for the white knight who rescued Nadja in the first episode (conniving uncle sending henchmen after Nadja to steal her proof that she's the actual heir to a dukedom, I told you this was a shojo adventure after all!). He seems surprised to see her as well but it's no surprise, they're both hundreds of miles away from where they met after all and the two of them go off for a walk while everyone else sleeps.

At this point I'll mention why I thought this episode was worth singling out, not just because of it's plot significance but because it was directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Yes, the man who did Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and parts of Digimon, for some reason no one ever seems to mention that he did work on other Toei shows too! He also directed a couple of other episodes but I felt like you could see his influence the best here. The whole episode is a bit dreamy, the normally mature Nadja acts a bit more childish and like her age here (he seems to do better with young teens than young children) and Francis is a bit more withdrawn, this dreaminess has brought about both isolation and connection between the two. Francis reveals more about himself and Nadja says that this is a side of him she's never seen before, as if something about this hot summer day has made him open up in a way that she's hoped he would after all of their past encounters. 

But I have a theory, this is an important episode because it has quite a huge twist that was completely out of the blue and un-foreshadowed in any way. I knew it was coming and didn't see any clues for it, heck the show was even inconsistent with it's own visual themes so I wonder if most of the staff was unaware of the twist as well, I certainly wouldn't expect a kid's show to provide no hints at all. So I think this episode was an attempt to rectify it, after all, everything seems strange in a dream and your mind focuses on the oddest of things, why not use it to suggest that something is terribly wrong to lessen the shock of the reveal 20 minutes later just a little bit? Even the visuals seem to have gone up a little in this episode, everything from the backgrounds, the lighting, and the placement of objects in a scene fully contributes to the half-there-half-not feeling of the episode. It's a fully cohesive episode and I think it wasn't by random ordering of the schedule that Hosoda was put in charge of such a critical piece. 

(And to make it clear, I do think this was the best way to handle this problem. The show should have never written itself into such a tight corner in the first place but this was an okay attempt to rectify it. Plus the episode really let Nadja and Francis connect and work out some of their own histories and philosophies, the show isn't quite mature enough to have real themes but the character's motivations are huge in this show. Francis alone brings classism, nobless oblige, the "power" of sudden wealth, and these are all a huge impact on how Nadja grows and chooses what path she wants to walk in the world. Seriously it's a great show, not licensed but after like 12 years all of the fansubs are out!)

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