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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.