“A thousand years have passed since the collapse of industrialized civilization. A toxic jungle now spreads, threatening the survival of the last of the human race.”
When I was 16, I almost died. Growing up on the Big Island of Hawai’i, we got to do a lot of fishing. There was not much more thrilling than catching some gigantic saltwater boon and taking it proudly home for dinner. In this manner, I’ve eaten some very fresh crab, eel, octopus, and a whole variety of Pacific fish. Once we caught a 70lb white tuna but eating that wasn’t how I nearly killed myself.
Fishing out on jagged cliffs of igneous rock, we learned to watch the rhythm of the waves crashing in huge aweful plumes of white foam as the dark ocean below surged with all of its indifferent hostility. The particular spot we’d found that day involved climbing down into a sort of ravine and then up the other side before a wave washed through in order to reach a perch like a bulwark out over the sea that was perfect for casting a line. I carefully watched for the wave and then went down just as it passed. At the bottom, I dropped the tackle box I was carrying and just as I looked down, a freak wave out of timing came rushing through the crevice at me.
Before I knew what was happening, I was forced backward, cutting up the shirt and skin on my back, hurled toward the edge of a cliff and the sheer drop into the water below. Rough as the ocean was I don’t know that I would’ve had the strength to swim against the current or even find a foothold back onto the cliffs. I’ll never know if I would’ve survived because just as I was about to go over the edge, my younger brother reached out and grabbed my collar. Then my uncle got me by the shoulder and they pulled me up over the brink. I sat down in shock the rest of the trip.
That experience taught me to respect nature.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, known as Kaze no Tani no Naushika in Japan, is a science fantasy epic directed by Hayao Miyazaki, produced by Isao Takahata, scored by Joe Hisaishi, animated by Topcraft studio. It was first released in 1984, one year before the formation of the legendary Studio Ghibli. Though a year early, it is often listed among Ghibli’s other films and for all intents and purposes unofficially considered to be one. For the sake of StuGhiFeaFilReMo, this film serves as the perfect launching point.
Not only did it see almost all of the talent that would later go into Studio Ghibli helm its project, but it also forms a narrative and thematic foundation for the majority of Ghibli’s films. The wonder of flight, the environmentalism, pacifism, feminism, the memorable characters and misguided villains presented here will go on to characterize the Studio’s works. It is also an adaptation of a manga of the same name written by Miyazaki. Many Ghibli films are adaptations of literature. Though ironically in this case no one would green light the project without a pre-existing promotional tie in so Miyazaki was forced to write the manga in order to eventually base his film off of it.
I can describe Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as a post-apocalyptic story of respect for nature and survival in the face of adversity. It is Asimov meets Tolkein with a little bit of Herbert’s Dune and Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi admitted as much and its easy to see that Chocobos were inspired by Lord Yupa’s mounts. If you want another retelling, check out the obscure NES action-RPG Crystalis, which is almost concept for concept the same.
Avoid at all costs, however, the New World Pictures adaptation Warriors of the Wind. It was edited to incoherence. It was the reason why Miyazaki chose to develop a “no edits” principle for foreign releases of Studio Ghibli films. A wise choice and the world has greatly benefitted from that decision.
The only good English adaptation of the film is by Disney who dubbed it with a star-studded cast.
In the film, the world-building narrative is set up with a bit of short text and a genius pictorial presentation over the opening credits. Its enigmatic imagery is a perfect way to draw the audience into the mystery and wonder of this fantastic world.
The depictions show a catastrophic, global event known as the Seven Days of Fire, which involved gigantic biomechanical warriors that burned the Earth. After hundreds of years passed, almost all of human civilization has been destroyed and the remnants are threatened by the poisonous jungle.
Nausicaä (pronounced naw-sic-uh) is a princess of the people of the Valley of the Wind, a place of purity and harmony with nature free from pollution and warfare. She takes her name from the Phaeacian princess in Homer’s Odyssey, proving Miyazaki is a well-read man. The princess is depicted as spirited and free, honest, a lover of nature living in understanding toward all, including the dangerous and territorial mutant insects of the toxic jungle. She becomes a leading figure involved in an escalating conflict with the warlike nations of Tolmekia and Pejite, and a resurrected horror of the ancient world.
Nausicaä came about from Miyazaki’s reaction to the disastrous Minamata bay mercury poisoning, which not only tremendously affected the ecosystem but also poisoned thousands of people. The real life event served as a catalyst for the creation of Nausicaä’s poisonous forest and the mutated creatures like the powerful Ohmu which inhabit it, as well as the survivors limping along in the wastes beyond it, suffering from the creeping expansion of the jungle.
So why is this film so admirable? Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was Miyazaki’s proof to the world that animation’s only limit was imagination, that it could accomplish anything, be anything.
He showed the world that these “cartoons” are not just for kids but were capable of mature storytelling to be taken seriously. His vision of an epic science fantasy with complex, heartfelt themes formed a vision for the future of Japanese animation much in the same way that Walt Disney had created a renaissance of sorts in Western animation. Miyazaki’s revolution in Japanese anime that would launch the director into legendary status and establish anime as a respectable medium to be treated as an artform for decades to come.
The 8-bit Review
You can tell at once that this is anime of the 80’s and yet at the same time it can surprise you. The green-blue-brown shapes, clothing, faces, hair, buildings, people are all fairly simplified and featureless shapes with minimal details like wrinkled fabric or strands of hair. Certainly in comparison with modern Japanese animation it can look dated. However, the backgrounds are exceptionally detailed. They are so astounding in fact that it’s easy to become lost in them and lose track of what characters are saying. Characters themselves seem to float over the backgrounds, though the experience isn’t negatively jarring and doesn’t impede the flow of the film. Overall, the presentation of the art is in its early stages compared to Ghibli’s later works, but the obvious craftsmanship is already here.
The Tolmekian and Pejite vehicles and aircraft bear a strange resemblance to real life weaponry used in World War II, further solidifying a connection between real catastrophic events and the film. As we’ll see once we begin to delve into the storytelling elements, there’s many more connections to the War than just the passing appearance of vehicles.
The animation of the Giant Warrior is one of the most frightening and intense in the whole film and it was completed by one man: Hideaki Anno . He later went on to write and direct Neon Genesis Evangelion. I won’t spoil the scene with an image since it’s just too amazing and disgusting at the same time with so many moving parts… the Giant Warrior is one of the most memorable scenes in here.
The animators’ capabilities strike you hard from the first action set piece, which finds Nausicaä on her Mehve glider and Lord Yupa on his mount fleeing from an enraged Ohmu insect of the toxic jungle. Red eyes blazing and front legs scrambling across the desert, it is immediately gripping. The fact that they chose to use static images for the separately moving segments of the Ohmu’s carapace is also a stroke of genius since it makes the creature really seem gigantic, like it weighs a ton. Animation had never seen anything like it before and the power of that animation was in Studio Ghibli’s hands. There is extremely little recycled animation such as practically defined a lot of anime before and after.
Nausicaä marks the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the Ghibli filmmakers and composer Joe Hisaishi. The sweeping score that crescendos then shatters into the gentle movements of a pianist is breathtaking right at the outset of the film. The score conveys a sense of grandeur to this world, working right alongside the animation. No wonder Ghibli opted to keep Hisaishi very close by as they continued to develop their films. His work is characterized by emotional themes presented in a fusion of Japanese and European sounds, though his score for Nausicaä may be among the more Western of his film compositions.
In my opinion, the film juggles the use of silence both with success and failure. Sometimes the lack of music becomes so noticeable when a particularly dissonant electric song starts to play. There’s a set of very 80’s-sounding tracks which you’ll notice only play around the toxic jungle and its creatures, perhaps as an audial indication of the strangeness of them. The unsettling electric pseudo-rock/jazz is just that: strange. It’s hard to explain away its use beyond it perhaps merely being a product of its time and people actually thought it was cool back then. Now it just sounds upsetting, though at least it is confined to the freakish imagery of the jungle.
Despite the use of these few tracks, I still hold that this soundtrack is one of the best in the Ghibli roster for that soaring opening and theme song.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
The power of this movie is in its storytelling and in its script, so rife with a sense of real danger and hopelessness. Perhaps that is the benefit of adapting from literature. There’s a tangibility and sense of realism to this dystopian world.
It’s a tight script with threat after mounting threat: the Tolmekian ship carrying its horrible cargo crashing into the Valley of the Wind, the discovery of the Giant Warrior among the ship’s remains, the arrival of the Tolmekian army to usurp and annex the Valley, the fall into the toxic jungle, the revelation that the Pejite army is luring the Ohmu into the Valley to destroy the Tolmekians and the final appearance of the horrible Giant Warrior. It’s escalation after escalation.
Nausicaä herself is an interesting character, though perhaps a Mary Sue. She doesn’t have much growth or development in the film by modern standards. What could I say that she learns? She ends the film knowing what she already believed: that the toxic jungle was more benevolent than evil and the real dangers were greedy humans. She discovered before the events of the film that the jungle was naturally and slowly purifying the polluted Earth as its trees calcified and deteriorated into clean soil.
In essence, she’s not the audience. She’s the main character and the titular character but not the protagonist since it matters little to her if she lives or dies. The success of the story is for the survival of the Earth and its inhabitants. She herself learns nothing. She teaches. She is a hero in the classic sense: immortal and untouchable, without blemish.
Thinking over it, does she really have any faults? She says things that would come off as condescending if not for the innocence and earnestness that she says them. If she didn’t really believe what she was saying was true or if she had some ulterior motive for saying them, then maybe she would seem snobbish. Maybe her flaw is her shock and emotion that led to her assaulting the Tolmekian troops after they killed her father? That seemed to startle her apparently pacifist nature. Or maybe hysteria is Nausicaä’s flaw though the choice to do whatever it took to stop violence turns that into a virtue. She willingly exposes herself to poisonous air to console her own people.
She also stops the Pejites with open arms in a crucifix pose, completely opening herself up to being shot by them in the scene I’m describing. She is indeed shot, wounded in the shoulder above her heart and in her heel. It has been argued by some that the Disney dub, despite Miyazaki’s policy against foreign meddling, did indeed meddle with some of the symbology of the film, namely by introducing a Judeo-Christian Messianic flavor where this was not at all the case before.
I can say that I’ve seen both the dubbed and the subbed versions several times through and I haven’t come to the conclusion that Disney was the one to make Nausicaä out to be a Christ-like figure. I think Miyazaki did that himself. Consider not only her crucifix pose that opened her up to being so wounded, but also the red dress she wore is stained blue again (the color of her original dress and the color of peace in the Ohmu’s eyes) by the blood of a baby Ohmu which ends up causing her to resemble the Messianic figure of prophecy. Blood-stained robes. Crucifix pose. Prophetic fulfillment. Check and check and check. She even is raised from the dead by the custodians of the Earth, the Ohmu themselves, once their rage subsides and they see her self-sacrifice.
Nausicaä is the only one who seems to question the nature of things and the toxic jungle, except for Lord Yupa who is out searching the world. Ultimately it is her demonstration that the lives of others are more valuable than her own which quiets the wrath of the Ohmu. “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends” and that is the self-sacrificial love which soothes the natural rage. It’s an act of propitiation.
Who can know the mind of the creator? Yet if Miyazaki did not intend this kind of imagery then he went about including a lot of it nonsensically. Sure there are several other religious concepts presented here, but the image of Nausicaä walking on the “fields of gold” as one who has saved both insects and mankind with her arms outstretched isn’t easy to gloss over.
Almost all of the themes that will come to define Miyazaki’s Ghibli feature films are present here: strong female protagonists, the value of all life, the relationship of pacifism to violence, environmental and anti-war sentiments, respect for an indifferent and sometimes hostile nature, the dangers of the acceleration of technology exceeding ethics.
That last theme is bound up in the ancient Giant Warriors (also known as God Warriors) and the plague of fire they visited upon the world generations before the events of Nausicaä. The frightening monsters are clearly symbols for the atom bomb. Miyazaki of course would be familiar with the effects that the close of World War II had upon his nation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s no wonder that anime has depicted the hideous results of nuclear warfare with fear and apprehension, even here depicting it as monsters. That symbolism is made concrete in the original literature which ascribes “poisonous light” and atomic fuel to the Giant Warriors during the Seven Days of Fire, itself a vivid nightmare of nuclear holocaust.
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
There is (and has been) a point of no return with the advancement of technology. There’s just no way we can characterize its advancement as a purely positive thing if it escapes the reach of ethics. Two generations ago, the world wasn’t worried about dictators possessing weapons of mass destruction but today that’s a very near fear. As the Tolmekian Princess Kushana says about the Giant Warrior. “The Warrior can’t be drowned or destroyed, and until it walks on its own it can’t be moved. Don’t you understand? It’s too late. There’s no turning back now.” At one point does that final sentence become fatal for the inhabitants of our world? In this sense, Nausicaä is a cautionary tale.
It’s a theme of technology and engineering versus nature. Man’s knowledge versus natural wisdom. I thought of this again during the dream sequence when we’re shown the memories of Nausicaä’s childhood. She’s hides a baby Ohmu from her father and his soldiers. Her father says to her “Hand it over, child. Insects and humans cannot live in the same world. You know that.” And there are two shots with several adult hands reaching out to her to wrest her from her spot protecting the baby insect.
Seems to me that the hands are representative of the will of man, strong, resolute, unable and unwilling to understand even the childlike desire to preserve an insect’s life. The innocence of a child is natural. Humans have to learn to hate and it was man’s will that humans learned to fear the toxic jungle rather than try to understand it.
At the height of the film’s climax, the Giant Warrior fails to rescue mankind from the wrath of nature, and an old woman explains: “The anger of the Ohmu reflects the anger of the Earth. The Earth knows it’s wrong for us to survive if we have to depend on a monster like that.”
The Tolmekian army, representative of technology with their airships, tanks and war machines, embraced the Giant Warrior. Indeed they actively sought it and were locked in a power struggle with the nation of Pejite for it. One Tolmekian commander, Kurotowa, says of the rapidly developing Giant Warrior embryo that it awakens “long forgotten ambitions” in him, an old soldier now given the opportunity to seize power. It’s all about seizing power through whatever means.
How interesting that the Tolmekians have as their flag a double-headed dragon: a double-faced serpent you think you can trust but which will betray you in the end. Such is the case with the rise of the Giant Warrior at the height of the film’s intensity before it melts into a puddle of worthless guts and bones.
Thematically, it isn’t all doom and gloom end-of-the-world type stuff. There is the ubiquitous theme of flight that is a fingerprint on every Miyazaki film. An unavoidable sense of wonder fills our minds when we think of flying. It’s not surprising that the most common answer I’ve heard to the question “What superpower do you want most?” is “flight”. We’ve long dreamed of flying. Miyazaki turns his films into dreams where we can soar through the skies alongside the Princess Nausicaä, and later alongside many others.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
Very serious and sometimes grim, violent, bloody, frightening. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind may be the most frightening of the Studio Ghibli films behind Princess Mononoke, and maybe some parts of Spirited Away. It’s an honest tale that wants to be as honest as possible to its message. It purposes to deliver that message as clearly and strikingly as it can. Sometimes the best way to snap someone out of lethargy and apathy is with some powerful and dramatic effect. Nausicaä is that effect.
For that reason, it’s probably not the first Ghibli film you’d like to show to your kids. We are still largely stuck with the notion that animation is for kids. Miyazaki proved that it’s not but it’s been difficult for Western society to shake that idea. Certainly we have our own adult animated films but this is one that is meant for more mature audiences capable of digesting its mature themes. This is a film to discuss with capable members of the family! Otherwise, show the kids Totoro or Ponyo first.
The English cast is phenomenal. We’re treated to the likes of Patrick Stewart (who probably has never read a bad line in his life) as Lord Yupa the swordmaster. Alison Lohman brings a warmth and softness to Nausicaä’s voice which only accentuates the moments when she becomes hysterical with grief. Uma Thurman plays the villainess Kushana and Chris Sarandon is her right-hand man Kurotowa. A pre-cannibal Shia LaBeouf plays Asbel of Pejite, the closest thing to a love interest for Nausicaä in the whole thing. Even the lovable and instantly recognizable Mark Hamill lends his voice to the film as the Mayor of Pejite, a sort of indirect, distant antagonist toward the end of the film.
I know that a voice cast does a great job when you lose sight of the actor as you’re watching the film. I did just that. I forgot it was Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman (thank God… *cough cough* Poison Ivy *cough*). I just heard the voices of Yupa and Kushana.
The film is a landmark in animation but it is still the product of several influences and itself an adaptation of the manga of the same name. However, it is an original story told by Miyazaki and the fact that it has influenced so much since its release goes to show how powerful of a story it is.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Personally, I’m not a great fan of manga. Sure I read comic books now and then. However, I can be persuaded to locate the manga for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The film after all is only an adaptation of a part of the full story.
I’ve met a few people in the past week talking about the Studio Ghibli canon and there are many who haven’t seen their films beyond Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, maybe a bit of My Neighbor Totoro or Howl’s Moving Castle for good measure. To those of you who have yet to see a majority of their films, let this review be of some incentive to you. I don’t care if you don’t care for anime. Look, I already told you in my previous post that I don’t, either. This is me talking. Not some green tea’d weeaboo. And I’m telling you that these movies amount to exquisite storytelling that grow with each viewing. You would be doing yourself a disservice to miss out on their contributions to the world of entertainment.
So where’s a good place to start, you ask? Right here. Start with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
It’s astounding that Miyazaki and his team of animators hit the ground running with this film. Even if he had never directed another movie in his life, I assume he would still be remembered (though of course more vaguely) for his work here on this nominal title. It smacks of the end of a life’s work though it’s only just the beginning!
Aggregated Score: 9.1
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Categories: Movie Review