A fond throwback to the shojo anime of yesteryear with their period European settings and fairytale romance. Ashita no Nadja (“Nadja of Tomorrow”) revives a genre that made many of us anime fans in the first place. In a turn of the century storybook England, 13 year old Nadja Applefield (voiced by Ami Koshimizu), a sunny, charming girl with a talent for dancing and making friends, lives happily at the Applefield Orphanage with her childhood pals and kindly Miss Appleton. Mysterious birthday gifts - a dress and a diary - suggest her mother is somewhere out there, while creepy villains Rosso (Kenji Nomura) and Bianco (Kazunari Kojima) try to steal her precious heart-shaped broach. However, a handsome stranger called Francis Harcourt (Mitsuki Saiga) fells them with karate chops and comforts Nadja with a moonlight kiss.
Soon after rescuing her fellow orphans from a raging fire, Nadja joins the Dandelion Troupe and travels across Europe in search of her long-lost mother. The colourful troupe includes strongman (and troupe leader) George, clairvoyant Granny, singer Sylvie (Fumiko Orikasa), melancholy violinist Thomas (Daisuke Kishio), Abel the clown (Takumi Yamazaki), gap-toothed little Rita (Ikue Otani) “the world’s youngest lion tamer” and her lion cubs Crème and Chocolat, who become a second family to Nadja, marvelling as her amazing talent draws huge crowds.
Their journey to London - look out for period recreations of Trafalgar Square, the London Underground and the British Museum - introduces gentleman thief Black Rose (“the noble flower that blooms in the night”), a masked phantom who robs from the corrupt rich to feed the starving poor, and about whom Nadja senses something familiar. A new arrival joins the Dandelion Troupe, samurai boy Kennosuke (Reiko Kiuchi), a whiz with mechanical gadgets and a sword. He is soon smitten with Nadja, but faces competition from cocky American kid T.J. Livingston (Yuki Kaida), whose louche yet good-hearted journalist brother Harvey Livingston (Kenjiro Tsuda) grows increasingly fascinated with the mysteries surrounding our young heroine. As Nadja travels from London to Paris, across the Italian Alps and beyond, she slowly pieces the clues to her real identity as rightful heir to the dukedom of Preminger, although wicked uncle Lord Herman (Issei Futamata) schemes to keep her from finding her family.
This lyrical and hugely engrossing anime serial blends Charles Dickens with Pollyanna and hints of steampunk fantasy. Amazingly it uses storytelling devices that go all the way back to Seventies classics such as Candy, Candy (1976) or Star of the Seine (1975). Even more amazing is that they work astonishingly well. What begins as a light-hearted romantic tale gradually develops undertones about class discrimination, poverty and ill-fortune, yet with a burgeoning sense that the snooty, self-absorbed aristocratic world is on its last legs. Tomorrow belongs to Nadja and her young friends, whose adventures educate them about the wider world. Beneath the fanciful European garb, this is an ode to Japanese family values and sensibilities, with a lead who embodies the three Cs of shojo heroism: courage, compassion and conscientiousness. Blonde, blue-eyed Nadja proves good company and her charming songs, composed by Keichi Oku, grow more integral to the narrative than is at first apparent.
Typically for a shojo anime aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at teenage girls the story is overloaded with handsome suitors for Nadja’s affections. As well as those already mentioned, there is Christian Strand (Yusuke Oguri) an aspiring Egyptologist who knows everything about mummies and nothing about girls; fellow orphan Oliver (named after Oliver Twist perhaps?) who is forever tongue-tied around Nadja; rakish womanizer Leonardo Cardinale (Kenichi Suzumura) who proves a guardian angel on her first visit to a costume ball; and Lord Herman’s foppish stepson Oscar Preminger (Tomakazu Seki). Each threads their own subplot into this richly woven tapestry that moves from daredevil adventure to thought-provoking and contemplative.
Absolutely dazzling animation provides a visual exuberance missing from anime for a long time. Visions of Nadja as she flies through a lavish palace amidst a shower of rose petals - and note the painstaking detail that extends to recreations of famous artworks - or bounces past a trans-global montage of friends, or soars above the spectacular city of lights, stir the senses with their ingenious fusion of CG and traditional animation. Yet these often extraordinary visuals are at the service of strong storytelling, laced with clever and surprising nods to European filmmakers from Lina Wertmuller to Luchino Visconti. Ashita no Nadja moves in its suggestion that family comes in all shapes and sizes and how camaraderie can triumph over insurmountable odds. Like its resolutely upbeat heroine, this show is a real charmer.