Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

For my hundredth post on this blog, I wanted to do something special. Therefore I have decided to talk about a movie of great personal importance to me, a movie that shaped my adolescence and the way I view the world: Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I saw it on my crappy school-issued laptop in December of 2008 when I was fifteen years old and never forgot it. For years, it was my number one favorite movie and it remains in my personal top ten to this day. The film covers many of the themes I’m attracted to: the nature of violence, the nature of evil in mankind, and the possibility of hope in what appears to be a hopeless world doomed to destruction.

A thousand years after modern civilization was destroyed by nuclear war, humanity has dwindled down to a number of warring tribes trying to survive in a polluted environment where large insects dominate the landscape and even the air has become poisonous due to the spread of the Sea of Decay, a jungle filled with toxic plants. The Valley of the Wind is the one place immune from this pollution due to the wind which comes in from the coast. The nation is led by the bedridden King Jhil and Princess Nausicaa, a young woman fascinated by the Sea of Decay and the insects which have adapted to its conditions. She is a pacifist, believing man can coexist with nature despite the general fear of the large insects, particularly the mammoth Ohmu. However, the Valley is invaded by the militaristic Tolmekians, resulting in the killing of Nausicaa’s father and a shaking of her faith in her own ideals when she reacts to the king’s death with violence against the invaders. Held hostage by the warrior-princess Kushana, Nausicaa and her kingdom are suddenly launched into the midst of a conflict between Tolmekia and the neighboring kingdom of Pejite. The Tolmekians seek to awaken an ancient “God Warrior,” a surviving biological weapon from the apocalypse which wiped out civilization centuries ago, and destroy the Sea of Decay with it, ignoring the fact that this will draw the fatal ire of the insects within its ever-expanding borders. The Pejite nation is willing to use measures just as drastic and self-defeating to kill the Tolmekians as well as innocents for the greater good. Aided by her mentor Lord Yupa and the Pejite Prince Asbel, can Nausicaa prevent another apocalypse?

Though not a Ghibli film, Nausicaa set the bar more than any other pre-Ghibli work for the studio’s output in the years to come. Though there are a few moments of weak animation in the long shots and extreme long shots, this is a beautifully animated film, particularly during the action sequences. The design of the world and characters calls to mind the look of Isao Takahata’s 1968 fantasy Horus, Prince of the Sun, a film I discussed a bit last year; the young prince Ashitaka looks like a post-puberty Horus and Lord Yupa is a dead-ringer for the elderly blacksmith in the earlier movie. Nausicaa herself is the epitome of the Ghibli Heroine, first introduced to the world in Horus through the tragic character of Hilda, the brave and compassionate but emotionally conflicted songstress. Preceded even more closely Lana of Miyazaki’s 1978 television series Future Boy Conan and Lady Clarisse of his feature film directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa resembles them in her kindness and inner strength, but is much more active in the story, as later Ghibli heroines like San, Kiki, and Chihiro will be.

Based off the massive comic of the same name Miyazaki was writing at the time (and would continue to work on until 1994), Nausicaa often comes under fire from fans of the original source for not being as “deep.” It does cut a lot from the source material, narrowing the politics of the setting to the basics for instance. However, considering that only the first two volumes of the comic were published at the time and that Miyazaki had no clue where he would ultimately go with the story and characters, I would say the film adaptation is impressive for how much it is able to stand on its own. As someone who was introduced to this story through the picture, I can assure you that you will never feel lost if you have not read the comic in advance. I have moved past the point where I feel an adaptation should be nothing more than a lifeless counterfeit copy of the original source. Changes are not only inevitable, but sometimes, they should be encouraged and embraced. The book will be there nevertheless. (And let me assure you, it is a great book, arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievement as an artist in any medium—don’t let the length intimidate you.)

In fact, there are some things about the movie which I prefer to the manga. (Warning: spoilers from here on out.) In the source material, the death of Nausicaa’s father and Nausicaa’s murderous fit of rage-induced violence against enemy soldiers are separate events. The film combines them, making for a more emotionally charged and relatable sequence. Nausicaa kills the soldiers for their disrespect for her nation in the comic, but in the film, the killings ae spontaneous, a reaction to her grief and anger. Her own capacity for violence frightens Nausicaa—and shakes us in its ferocity. As the picture progresses, we learn the other warring nations are not exclusively motivated by greed or survival, but by a sense of injustice. Kushana wants vengeance against the insects which destroyed her limbs as a child. The Pejite people want vengeance against Tolmekia for the death of their princess and the other destruction left in their wake. There is no “bad guy” in Nausicaa, just an assortment of confused, frightened, and angry people in a dying world.

I cannot overstate how much of an impact this sequence had on me as a teenager. Idealistic to an extreme, I wanted to be Nausicaa, someone kind and compassionate, resourceful, brave, and willing to lay down her life for the greater good. A common criticism of the film has been that Nausicaa is “too perfect.” I would only agree if this one scene did not exist, for here, Nausicaa the gentle pacifist, willing to let a frightened animal bite her finger, is roused to mindless fury and a violence the audience exclusively associated with the militaristic Tolmekians. The ideal heroine suddenly reveals an uglier side, a flaw. Later on, she is shocked by her actions and confesses to Yupa, “I didn’t know I had it in me to kill.” Even the kindest souls are capable of violence. Even those with the highest ideals cannot always follow them through because, news flash, we’re all human.

Though the picture ends on a positive note (and a rather weird deus ex machina, but when that’s your film’s biggest flaw, I’m not going to complain), this single scene has major consequences and reverberates through Miyazaki’s work. One need only look at Nausicaa’s spiritual sequel, Princess Mononoke. Released three years after the Nausicaa graphic novel came to its conclusion, Mononoke often feels like a remake of the 1984 adaptation, as it also concerns a pacifist would-be savior in blue trying to stop a war between mankind and nature. However, Mononoke is much bleaker, the equivalent of Kurosawa’s tragic Ran. The gentle Ashitaka pleads for peace as Nausicaa does, but no one listens to him. The nature-loving princess is savage and despises her own humanity. Unlike Nausicaa the movie, Mononoke has no unabashedly optimistic ending that suggests man anhd nature can get along. If there is any optimism at all, it is cautious, unsure of the future, maybe even doubting that man and the natural world can ever reconcile completely. Even the ending of the Nausicaa film, for all its celebrations and hope for a better tomorrow, does not tie all the plot ends into a neat little bow. But that is what keeps these films so fascinating after all this time. Miyazaki is one of those great artists who ponders the big questions, and like Kurosawa or Kubrick, he does not supply the audience with easy answers to make you feel good when you leave the theater. It may not be the most comforting thing, but it makes the work much more interesting and endurable.

Batman (dir. Tim Burton, 1989)


It’s amazing how seeing a familiar film on the big screen can change your perception of it. I have seen Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman several times on DVD at home, and always found it to be an enjoyable but decidedly style over substance affair. I went to see it at the local movie theater last night and it emerged as a completely different movie, a much better movie. Something clicked for the first time. Perhaps Batman’s almost operatic grandeur is more suited to a larger venue.

Fritz Lang would approve.

Fritz Lang would approve.

The general consensus on Batman is that it’s a film rich in atmosphere and deficient in story, par the course with much of Burton’s oeuvre. Even with a renewed outlook on the film, I would still say that is pretty accurate. The atmosphere is a delicious blend of German expressionism and art deco, almost feeling like a film noir in the early scenes with Jack Napier’s dealings with the Gotham crime lords. Bleak, tyrannical with its imposing architecture, and looking more than a little reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis, Burton’s Gotham is a hybrid world, blending fashions, technology, and architecture of the 1930s and 1940s with the excess of the 1980s. In that respect, it’s a lot like the world of James Whale’s Frankenstein films, which mixed the 19th century with contemporary elements. Danny Elfman’s aggressive and moody score also adds to the character of Gotham City as a whole; this is a setting as distorted as Batman and the Joker themselves, one which reflects their disturbed inner worlds.

Lots of style, sure, but is there more substance there than is usually acknowleged?

Lots of style, sure, but is there more substance there than is usually acknowledged?

But I’ve always adored those aspects of Burton’s Batman; the things that always felt wanting related to the plot, which does take a backseat to the visuals and ambiance. Despite being the titular character, Batman himself is often relegated to the shadows while the Joker takes over the show. One of the most debated aspects of this film is how much more the audience knows about the Joker as compared to the Dark Knight: we get his backstory as the psychotic gangster Jack Napier, origin story as the Joker, and see him engage in all sort of darkly comedic yet chilling acts of villainy. In comparison, we see Bruce/Batman mostly brooding, fumbling in his relationship with Vicki while trying to keep Gotham from being obliterated right off the map. I disliked this Batman-Joker ratio during my first two viewings, but the more I see the movie, the more I think it makes sense. For much of the runtime, Batman remains elusive both to the audience and audience surrogate character Vicki. Michael Keaton’s dual performance as Bruce and Batman benefits from large screen viewing, revealing little gestures and subtle expressions which suggested the tormented and lonely interior life of the character. Though his Bruce is probably a bit too “Clark Kent-ish,” his unassuming nature combined with Keaton’s physical appearance do make him seem like the last person who would be kicking ass in a bat suit at night.

Does Batman really complete any kind of character arc?

Does Batman really complete any kind of character arc?

What I find especially interesting about Keaton’s Batman is that his emotional and psychological issues are never resolved by the end credits. Throughout the film, he never truly lets Vicki in, even though she desperately wants to get through to him. We see this from their first date at his house, where the two sit at opposite ends of a long dining table in a sequence obviously referencing a similar scene in Citizen Kane depicting the alienation between Charles Foster Kane and his first wife Emily. And even though he defeats the Joker, saves the love interest, and prevents a large chunk of Gotham’s populace from being gassed to death, the final scene does not show the hero and Vicki together in a lover’s clinch. Instead, we have Vicki going into Bruce’s limousine alone while Batman stands aloof over Gotham City, as emotionally distant as ever. Come Batman Returns, it comes as no surprise that we learn the relationship never works out, killed in its infancy by Bruce’s aforementioned inability to let anyone into his cloistered world.

But the element which came out most of all during my big screen viewing of Batman was how the film took itself seriously without ever forgetting it was a comic book movie. As one of my friends said on the drive home from the theater: “The movie knows it’s a comic book adaptation, but the characters are unaware that they’re living in one.”

The "duel of the freaks" plays out on an oppressive, expressionistic stage.

The “duel of the freaks” plays out on an oppressive, expressionistic stage.

Of course, I still think Burton’s Batman is a flawed movie: the relationship between Bruce and Vicki is a little too rushed to be as effective as it could be, the action scenes are pedestrian, characters like Harvey Dent and reporter Knox are brought up and then just left hanging with little to do, there’s a lot of convenience in the plot (the Joker just happens to become obsessed with Vicki out of all the beautiful women in Gotham and the Joker just happens to have been the one to kill Batman’s parents all those years ago), and there are tons of weird little lapses of logic peppered in the script. Why does the Joker show up at Vicki’s apartment only to drop off flowers, shoot Bruce, and then just leave? And for God’s sake, why does Alfred let Vicki into the Batcave without Batman being majorly cheesed off?

Still, the backlash it has gotten in more recent years feels rather petty. Most of it comes from those who prefer the Christopher Nolan take on the mythos or hardcore Batman fans who dislike changes made to the general mythology of the character, like having Batman kill people or making it the Joker who gunned down Thomas and Martha Wayne. I guess I’m just the kind of person who’s a little more lax on adaptations in general; there can be more than one version of something and not all of them need to be the same. Plus when Batman gets something done right it does so brilliantly as a stylish and moody character study. For that reason alone, it seems too harsh to toss it aside like so much cinematic rubbish.