Does this satirical space opera live up to its legacy? Join Ember Reviews as we queue up the classic mecha series Martian Successor Nadesico to see how it uses its own genre’s tropes to create a parodical, yet sincere story.
The constant grind of keeping up with seasonal anime can be a bit overwhelming at times, so we’re just gonna chuck all that in the bin for now and dip into the well of classic anime that I think need some more attention in the modern era, which means today we’ll be taking a look at the parodical, unsettling, and downright weird uncut gem that is Martian Successor Nadesico. Fair warning: I’m gonna spoil quite a bit of this series and the movie, but do know that I give it a very strong recommendation as long as you’re not put off by quirky anime writing.
Premiering way back in late 1996, our story follows the crew of a spaceship called the Nadesico and its ragtag crew as they bounce across the inner Solar System in a quest to defeat a mysterious alien species called the Jovian Lizards, who are attempting to destroy all of Earth’s civilizations. Of course, with this being a mostly inexperienced crew, daily life aboard the Nadesico is nothing short of utter chaos and so the series ends up having a comedic edge for most of its runtime as we see the wacky shenanigans that these civilians get up to when they have to figure out how to pilot a trillion-dollar battleship. Chaos certainly is the operative word here, as the show’s mostly episodic structure with only a few overarching plot threads allows for a variety of wild scenarios to pop up, from idol competitions to anime conventions to even the classic beach episode.
However, hidden within these almost incoherent comedic ramblings, we find some truly thoughtful, often shockingly dark ideas regarding war and human nature. In episode 5, the ship’s captain, Yurika, is tasked with leading funeral rites for the deceased crew of a nearby space station. As Yurika is comically rushed from funeral to funeral, changing religious garb as she goes along, the scene eventually slows down a bit and Ruri, the ship’s science officer, uses the number of religious rites Yurika has become familiar with to show just how many people died in this single battle, with a wall of dead personnel surrounding Yurika. For this brief moment, what was once a purely comedic scene immediately turns dour and depressing, an emotional gut punch completely out of nowhere that throws the human cost of this conflict right in your face.
And then, the moment immediately becomes comedic again as Yurika completely misses the subtext and has another hysterical outburst over something completely different, and that, in a nutshell, is the core of Nadesico‘s writing structure. It has this habit of dropping bombshells like this out of nowhere and then moving on as if they didn’t even happen. No music sting. No gasping characters. Just the idea laid bare and maybe an unnerving, almost inaudible sound effect, and then it’s on to the next idea. It’s not too surprising considering that this story was helmed by Sho Aikawa, better know for his work on Concrete Revolutio and the original Fullmetal Alchemist, but the sheer density and rapid pace of the writing makes for a bit of a double-edged sword with Nadesico, as these more poignant ideas are often buried underneath several layers of loud anime characters shouting comedically at each other.
And yet, this writing rarely feels out of place or like it’s purposefully bending the characters to fit its themes. The crew of Nadesico are very genuine in the goals that they pursue, but it’s because of their own individual goals that they often don’t quite see eye to eye. There was one episode in particular where the dialogue was so chaotic and layered that I could barely keep track of what was even being said, and this seems entirely purposeful in conveying the single-mindedness of the different crew members. Akito, the main character, never intended to be a pilot in the first place. The only reason he got on the Nadesico was to ask Yurika, who also happens to be his childhood friend, if she knows anything about his parents’ mysterious deaths. His real dream is to be a cook and stay as far away from the war as possible, as he often displays traits that are unquestionably symptoms of PTSD that he incurred from the events of the first episode.
Despite this, he continues to get in the robot out of a desire to protect the friends he made on board the Nadesico and ends up saving the day. Sometimes it works out favorably like with Akito, and then other times an officer will go insane due to the pressure of a possible demotion, shoot up some kind of narcotic, and then fly into battle in a prototype robot and kill himself in a delusional rage. Nadesico really does not pull any punches nor does it care about tonal consistency, but that makes it all the more sincere in the end. It’s war, and horrible things can happen at any moment, but the crew continues to push forward and look for a solution because that’s all they can do.
Main plot aside, Nadesico is also an extremely metatextual series, with many of its thematic elements tying heavily into the narrative aesthetics of older mecha anime. This concept even manifests within the actual plot of the series, with an in-universe anime called Gekiganger 3, most likely a reference to Getter Robo, being central to several of the characters’ motivations and even working as a framing device for many of the events throughout the series. The hot-blooded Gekiganger protagonists serve as inspiration for Nadesico‘s main characters, even in their darkest moments, and near the end it serves as a cultural bridge between the Earthlings and Jovians, who turned out to be humans who were exiled from Earth, as the Jovians’ entire culture just so happens to be centered around Gekiganger. Nadesico goes out of its way many times to celebrate the classic mecha tropes that it was founded on.
However, there is a flip side to this, as it often uses these very tropes to completely upend the direction of the story for more plot twists bathed in metatext. During a peace negotiation, it’s revealed that the Jovians seek nothing short of the complete annihilation of Earth and its colonies, with their justification for this being that Earth is the evil empire that banished them to the far reaches of space in the first place, and in Gekiganger, the evil empire was completely irredeemable and needed to be completely destroyed in the final episode. Not only does this parallel how warring nations are often brainwashed into thinking their enemies are just evil monsters, but it also seems as though Nadesico is directly commenting on how some mecha fans oversimplify the messages of the anime they consume and showing how removed from reality one can become by getting too obsessed with a misreading of a story, with some of the Jovian characters going so far as to kill their own comrade in cold blood and fabricate an assassination by the Earth just to keep the war effort going, propaganda rallies and media manipulation part and parcel of the whole affair.
Based on all of that, you’d also be right to assume that Nadesico isn’t very shy about more direct political commentary, which brings us to this anime’s bluntly accusatory, though admittedly a bit complicated, attitude towards capitalism. In many mecha series, the main authoritative body that the characters report to is typically a branch of the military or a research group funded by said military, but in Nadesico, their authoritative body is literally just a weapon’s contractor known as Nergal that often goes directly against military commands for their own financial goals, which even gets the Nadesico‘s crew labeled as traitors for a brief spree of episodes at the beginning. At first, the characters don’t seem to be bothered by this and actually prefer over officially becoming soldiers, but as the story progresses, the corrupt and soulless whims of corporate greed begin to slip to the forefront. The first moment that struck me as particularly unsubtle was when the chairman’s secretary is assuring an executive board that she will be able to procure profitable results on a new project as a test subject for said project displayed on a wall of TVs behind them is crushed to death. This series makes no qualms about showing how inhumane a corporation like Nergal can be.
Near the end of the series, the meta element discussed earlier also rears its head again. Megumi, a character who was previously a voice actor before working on the Nadesico, later rejoins the cast of a magical girl series, but laments that the series has devolved into being a full-on battle anime, implying that it had previously been more of an action/comedy or had more slice of life elements, and that naming the fictional villains Jovans, one syllable off of the Jovians that she fought out in space, ruined the emotional core of the series as a fun children’s show and perverted it into another tool for military propaganda, to which the anime’s producer reveals that the anime is being directly funded by Nergal, revealing an ugly truth about the media being produced in the world of this anime, as well as the media of our own world.
Despite all of these grim moments, Nadesico chooses to end on a mostly positive note. In the final episode, Yurika decides that she’ll destroy the magical macguffin that both sides are fighting over by self-destructing the Nadesico, which would also rewrite history and make it so that the war never happened in the first place, a plan which the entire crew vehemently rejects. Even the Admiral who we thought sacrificed himself earlier in the series comes back, ukelele and Hawaiian lei and all just to show how ridiculous it is, to say that self-destructing is stupid and…well, self-destructive. In the end, what’s most important to all of them is the memories and friendships they were able to build through the experiences they shared, including all the hardships. “The friends we made along the way” are more important to them than ending the war, and so they choose to just remove themselves from the battle entirely to protect each other. It might seem a bit out of place considering everything that’s happened, but it really drives the point home that none of them really cared about the ideology behind the war at all, and pulling out is the best way for them to protect what’s most important, a sincere and complete rejection of the worldly issues thrust upon them by those in power. They know that the war will probably continue for a while after this, but all they care about right now is each other, with the culmination of Akito and Yurika’s relationship being the cherry on top of a shockingly happy ending…
…And then Prince of Darkness happened. While the TV series ended with its 26th episode, the story continued with the feature film Prince of Darkness…and also some Sega Saturn games in between those two but we’re gonna stick to the movie. Before watching it, this movie was described to me as the Madoka Rebellion of the Nadesico franchise and…I can’t really say they were wrong, but it also isn’t nearly as impactful in that sense. It picks up three years later and we immediately realize that happy ending from the TV series was immediately undone in the war’s aftermath, almost as a direct consequence of that ending. Yurika and Akito are both reported as dead from a shuttle accident, but it’s soon revealed that both of them were kidnapped for further experimentation by remnants of extremist factions from the war, with Yurika being fused with the previously mentioned macguffin and Akito continuously being used as a test subject, eventually leaving him without a sense of taste, robbing this once aspiring cook of everything that could have given him happiness in a post-war world.
The ending is still somewhat positive, but very much asserts that these characters will never truly escape the horrors of war, and it’s a pretty bold move after the more saccharine ending of the TV series. Unfortunately that was pretty much the only interesting idea the film followed through on, with all other interesting points barely getting more than a minute or so of screen time. This film is simultaneously too long and too short, focusing much more on the actual plot than the TV series ever did, and thus didn’t quite manage the same impact with its plot twists. It’s mostly just serious and mildly depressing all the way through, which I guess is the natural consequence of this post-war setting, but it still feels like a downgrade in terms of writing quality.
In any case, despite some misgiving with the moment-to-moment writing and how obscenely dense it can get, Nadesico is a series that’s sat at the forefront of my mind well after I finished it. It’s a comic space opera that casually dips into despair, pulls on the tropes of its predecessors to subvert mecha stereotypes, yet still remains truly sincere in its message about human connections. Blemishes and all, Nadesico remains a classic that continues to be relevant no matter how much time passes.
Thanks to all of you for watching. If you enjoyed this video, be sure to like and subscribe and follow Anime New Network on Twitter for more great anime content, and if you wanna see more from me you can check me out at Ember Reviews on YouTube and Twitter.