January 8, 2004
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is one of the true landmarks of animated cinema. Twenty years after its release, in a time when animation evolves by leaps and bounds, it continues to offer challenging ideas and genuinely move audiences. In Japan, Nausicaa routinely places at the top, or near the top, of every poll of the best anime films (it spent ten years at the top of Animage magazine's readers' polls, for instance). Here is a science-fiction adventure with ideas, with vision and heart.
Hiyao Miyazaki made a name for himself animating and directing various movies and TV shows during the late 1960s and ‘70s, including popular shows such as Future Boy Conan and Lupin the Third. After directing his first feature film, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro, and without any studio projects, he directed his energies on an original manga (graphic novel) saga. In 1982, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind appeared as a monthly serial in Animage, and quickly proved so popular that demand arose for a movie. After early resistance, Miyazaki relented, on the condition that he direct the picture, and his longtime colleague Isao Takahata produce. They enlisted Topcraft Studios (best known for the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit), hired a skilled musician named Joe Hisaishi to compose the score, and released the film to theaters in 1984.
Based on a 12th Century Japanese folk tale (“The Princess Who Loved Insects”), Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to live amongst poisonous fungus forests, mutant insects, and herds of giant blue-eyed slugs called Ohmu. The heroine, Nausicaa, is a chieftain’s daughter, lives in a small nation in a protected valley, and shares an empathic bond with the insects of her world; she firmly believes that humans and insects can peacefully coexist, despite the ever-present threat of the growing forests. She’s the archetype of the Miyazaki heroine: strong-willed, confident, and full of spirit.
The Valley of Wind suddenly finds itself in the middle of a war between two warring nations, Torumekia and Pejitei. The combatants disrupt the relative peace of the Valley and start shoving their weight around. A God-Warrior, the ancient weapons responsible for the destruction of civilization, is unearthed. Both sides vow not only to defeat their enemy, but to burn back the forests and reclaim nature. This sets the stage for a number of action set-pieces (including some terrific aerial combat scenes), moments of quiet introspection, a fair amount of light humor, and a search (by Nausicaa) to solve the mystery of the mutated environment.
All the great hallmarks of Miyazaki are present in full: self-confident female characters, concern for the environment, solid compositions, an optimistic humanism, and lots of flying. When you look at the history of animated movies, you realize how groundbreaking Nausicaa really is. There are no song-and-dance numbers, no wise-cracking animal sidekicks, no simple-minded moral lesson for the kiddies, nothing in the traditional Disney mold. Yet, this also is not some juvenile adolescent sex fantasy ala Ralph Bakshi or Heavy Metal. Nor is this a clone of Star Wars or JRR Tolkein. This is a new style of animated film, opening the doors for movies like Waking Life and Millennium Actress and Whisper of the Heart and Princess Mononoke.
Howard Hawks once claimed that a good movie should have three great scenes and no bad ones, and Nausicaa has the pick of the litter. The first such scene is a wonderfully stylish flashback sequence involving Nausicaa as a young girl. The flashback is drawn in a hypnotic, slightly surreal movement of rough pencil sketches and minor watercolor touches. The child tries in vain to protect a baby Ohmu from faceless adults (including, importantly, her father), only to lose her pet in a swarm of clawing hands, and it’s a great moment; all those swaying hands remind me of the “Tower of Babel” sequence in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The second great scene is a tribute to something usually overlooked in animation: the acting. It’s the moment when Nausicaa tries to rescue a young ohmu, which has been deliberately injured in order to trigger a deadly stampede. The giant insect sees the herd on the opposite side of an acid lake and starts crawling towards them. Nausicaa struggles to hold the Ohmu back, but her leg is pushed into the lake; she screams. The actress, Sumi Shimamoto (who also appeared in Castle of Cagliostro, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke), belts out a sustained scream that chills to the bone. It’s one of those great acting moments that fans often recall in hushed tones.
The third great scene occurs thirty minutes into the picture. The Valley of Wind is invaded by the Torumekian army, and something happens. I won’t reveal what, but this incident drives Nausicaa into a fury. She grabs a weapon, yells out, and kills several guards before she is suddenly stopped. It is a sudden and violent moment; this scene is shocking, and it sears into your mind. She doesn’t merely kill the soldiers, she cuts them down.
Is this the most important scene in the film? Without it, the movie doesn’t work; it would be little more than a preachy environmental parable (“man and nature can get along”). With it, the movie suddenly becomes much more complicated, nuanced. If the hero were male, this would be an expected cliché; almost a rite of passage. How many American films see violence as the answer to all questions? The gun is usually a substitute for the questions themselves.
When you put an intelligent, almost pacifist heroine in the role, the meaning changes. This girl is just as capable, deep down, of the same impulses that drive her adversaries to kill. She’s no longer just a pure Gandhi figure who always chooses right. Nausicaa is an animated film that firmly attacks gender stereotypes. Notice how the heroine avoids the traditional Disney cliché of the helpless princess who waits to be rescued by her prince. Notice also how she avoids the anime and action movie cliché (think Charlie’s Angels) of the superbabe who kicks ass and coolly dispatches tired one-liners.
The more I watch this film, the more aware I become of how effectively Miyazaki blurs these distinctions, to create characters who are more complex and emotionally honest. Kushana, the leader of the Torumekian army, is likewise not a typical cartoon villain, but a sympathetic character. When she casually reveals that she has lost her arm to insects (and possibly both her legs), you understand why she wants to burn the forests. There are also hints of conflict with her superiors back home, if you pay close attention. There are questions raised that are not necessarily resolved.
A lot of this is because the movie was based on an ongoing comic, which had just finished two volumes. Miyazaki is still working with some of the characters, wrestling with their motivations. The manga was still a handful of open threads; the screenplay does a terrific job of streamlining everything into a two-hour movie, while still showing echoes of greater events and themes to come.
Miyazaki would spend the next ten years, between movies, writing the manga; when he finally finished in 1994, he had written seven volumes and nealy 1100 pages. The scope of the story grows far beyond the boundaries of the movie, and grapples with the deepest themes of literature. The finished Nausicaa epic is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and still, the elements of that story -- the blurred lines, the pathos, the action, the characters – are visible in the 1984 film. Maybe not as vividly, but everything’s there. Notice, also, how nearly all the original events in the movie are recycled back into the novel at various points, especially in the final volume.
This is what draws me back time and again. I enjoy the movie for what it achieved, for the barriers broken, for the way all the various versions (film, novel, Mononoke) intersect. Even its flaws are compelling. That ending is practically the definition of deus ex machina, but when it works so well, does it really matter? Does it matter that later anime like Akira or Ninja Scroll have smoother animation? Those movies are cold-hearted, mean bastards. This movie pulses with life.