In Nineteenth century England respected aristocrats the Buxton family welcome the arrival of baby Jane though her mother tragically dies in childbirth. As time passes Jane (voiced by Ema Kogure) blossoms into a free-spirited fifteen year old with a remarkable aptitude for science and an obsession with aircraft fuelled by her beloved older brother, George (Masakazu Suzuki), a gifted inventor. Their father, Sir Edward Buxton (Masaaki Tsukada), holds equally high hopes for his stepson, William (Toru Okawa), not realizing he bears a grudge against the family for the untimely death of his own mother.
Meanwhile, George grows obsessed by the possible existence of a so-called “Flying Liquid” from the Middle East capable of powering his experimental aircraft. When his theories are scoffed at by the scientific community, George heads off to the Middle East to bring back a sample of the flying liquid. At the same time William disappears after embezzling a fortune from his stepfather’s bank. Only days later, word reaches the Buxton family that George has been executed for treason! Then an enormous hi-tech airship appears in the skies above London enabling a gang of masked criminals to rob Sir Edward’s bank. Scotland Yard suspect an inside job and the stress sees Sir Edward taken ill. But then a letter reaches Jane bearing George’s signature along with a gem that dissolves into a sample of the miraculous flying liquid! Convinced her brother is still alive, Jane sets off on an incredible adventure across the ocean and desert dunes and into a world beyond her wildest imaginings.
The writings of Jules Verne have been a fertile source for the anime industry what with offbeat adaptations like Adrift in the Pacific (1982), Around the World with Willy Fogg (1985) and the superb Verne pastiche The Secret of Blue Water (1989). Patapata Hikosen no boken, re-titled variously in English as Adventures of Patapata Aircraft, Secret of Cerulean Sand and Patapata Airship Adventure, shares a great many similarities with that fan favourite Studio Gainax classic though in actual fact was loosely adapted from two Verne novels: “Facing the Flag” and “City in the Sahara.” Aspects of its sprawling plot, particularly the initial episodes of this twenty-six part serial, also draw substantially from shojo melodramas of the Seventies like Candy Candy (1976) with its dewey-eyed but plucky young heroine, quasi-incestuous obsession with older siblings, fantasy European setting, and a complex level of psychological angst that proves genuinely compelling.
It actually takes a while before the steampunk science fiction aspects of the plot kick in. Early episodes come across somewhat along the lines of Downton Abbey meets Pollyanna centred around the troubled origins of the Buxton family and their efforts to mould young Jane into a proper young lady. Fortunately the characters are engaging enough in their own right with Jane an especially winning role model for female viewers with her adventurous spirit and knack for aeronautics engineering along with a stoicism and emotional maturity beyond her years. The adventure has a suitably epic sweep incorporating elements of Rudyard Kipling along with certain elements that recall Hayao Miyazaki’s early anime epics Future Boy Conan (1978) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), including an obsession with elaborate steampunk flying machines. These charmingly archaic aircraft are here rendered with computer graphics that were state-of-the art but now seem the one dated aspect of an otherwise handsome production.
Though slow in parts the adventure introduces Jane to an array of likeable and memorable characters and the pace picks up considerably once she reaches Neo-City, a secret hi-tech civilization that on the surface seems like a utopia but actually harbours a vast armada of flying machines stealing gold from around the world. Here, Jane bonds with Jeanne, a plucky little girl pilot whose scientific curiosity matches her own. While the big twist regarding the identity of the serial’s masked super-villain, Lord Harry, is not too hard to guess, it remains emotionally devastating nonetheless. The climactic episodes are laden with action and spectacle though it is the drama that packs the most potent punch and, in time honoured anime tradition, children will likely find both traumatizing and inspiring.