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.

Vrai Kaiser on Hayao Miyazaki

“It might make me a bit old and cantankerous to say so, but to me Miyazaki was the achievement of what anime could be. Not his love of planes or rolling green hills and environmental metaphors (for every auteur has themes to which they love returning), but for the sense of honest wonderment and scope. For characters who lived and breathed and whose actions felt real, and whose relationships were always honest. For worlds that were unique and enthralling even when he stepped into the works of others, and for female characters that were dynamic and varied and strong without having to be Strong Female Characters. The man gave me my favorite film, and a language to speak about animation with passion before I knew such a thing was possible. I will miss him dearly as a viewer As an artist, I’ll try to carry his dreams into the future.”

Vrai Kaiser

Cagliostro car chase

The car chase: the most celebrated sequence of Hayao Miyazaki’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Well-staged, thrilling, and funny, it’s one of the film’s highlights, that’s for sure.

Here are John Lasster’s thoughts on the sequence from his forward to Miyazaki’s Starting Point (a book you should read if you’re an animation fanatic or even a cinephile in general):

“There’s a term that a certain studio executive used when he sensed a movie was starting to slow down. He’d say, ‘I’m going for popcorn.’ He felt that unless a movie raced nonstop to its conclusion, an audience would inevitably lose interest. I totally disagree with him. Things don’t need to be faster all the time. That’s one way Miyazaki-san’s films, especially My Neighbor Totoro, have inspired me. His movies have balance – both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to The Castle of Cagliostro and see it. The car chase up the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment right before. That’s pacing.”

I only wish modern filmmakers felt the same way.

“Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation” by Helen McCarthy

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For me, this was the book that sparked my love of Hayao Miyazaki. I spotted a copy at the Japanese pavilion in Epcot when I was about 15 years old and in the middle of my embarrassing weaboo [anime fanatic] phase. Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service was one of my favorite films as a little girl and I was interested in seeing more, but had never got the chance. McCarthy’s book whetted my appetite and since then, I have seen all of Miyazaki’s Ghibli features, read halfway through his mammoth Nausicaa manga, and am just starting to go through his pre-Ghibli credits.

For a novice Miyazaki fan, this book is great, but for more experienced fans or people looking for a critical examination of Miyazaki’s artistry, it’s not so great. McCarthy’s tone is gushing throughout, offering little meaningful commentary or criticism on Miyazaki’s work. A good deal of the book is also comprised of plot synopses and character profiles, which are nice, but not really needed. The background info on production and commentary are much more interesting. Also, the book was published while Spirited Away was in production, so it does not explores Miyazaki’s career beyond Princess Mononoke.

Still, this isn’t the worst piece of anime scholarship you’ll find in the West. It is enthusiastic and has an excellent filmography at the end. Like I said before, perfect for the Miyazaki newbie.

The things that wouldn’t shut up: Streamline, Manga Entertainment, and The Castle of Cagliostro

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Discotek has recently released Hayao Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, on DVD and plan on releasing the Blu-ray in a few months. Their release is pretty much the definitive version for US audiences, keeping the opening credits, which were mangled in the 2006 DVD release, intact, and giving us the best subtitle translations yet. The one feature especially appreciated by some fans was the inclusion of the film’s two English language dubs, Streamline’s from 1992 and Manga’s from 2000. Both dubs are imperfect, though not without their charms. Honestly, if you’ve never seen this film, just watch it in Japanese with subtitles, but for the curious and those who prefer dubs, here’s a comparison of the two, because boy, they’re quite different beasts.

The Streamline dub is a nostalgic favorite of many westerners who first saw the film on VHS in the early 1990s and has been described as close to the spirit of the film. It balances the comedic and melancholic elements with relative ease. The majority of the players are good, giving natural line readings. I think writer Daniel Thomas MacInnes put it best when he compared the feel of this dub to the likes of an old radio show. However, I do think that Bob Bergen’s Lupin is weak; he sounds more like an over eager teenaged boy than a man in his mid-thirties, definitely not desirable as Cagliostro portrays Lupin at the twilight of his career and as mildly weary of the thief’s life. Inverse to that, the teenaged Clarisse sounds like a woman in her mid-thirties, far from the ingenue she is supposed to be.

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The biggest criticisms this dub receives all relate to how it plays fast and loose with the original script. Details are conjured up out of nowhere. Characters say things which go against their true characterizations or the intent of the scene, but my main peeve with this dub is its utter inability to let a silent moment play out. Emperor Kuzco of The Emperor’s New Groove fame would deem it “the thing that wouldn’t shut up.” Aside from one quiet scene early in the picture, Streamline seems to have been afraid that the audience would be bored should a second go by without audio clutter. If we have two characters in a scene, then anytime one of them is not in a shot, the voice actors chatter away, repeating dialogue already stated or engaging in clumsy ad-libbing. It’s as though they’re afraid the viewer is too stupid to catch some of the film’s subtleties, like when the Count’s wicked henchman Jodo performs the sign of the cross during the arrival of the archbishop and Streamline feels the need to have another character point out, “When did you become so religious?” Anime fan Carl Gustav Horn had plenty to say about this moment in his famous criticism of the Streamline dub:

“Streamline shows their inability to deal with subtlety in the simple screw-up of this line: “Since when did you become so religious?” Did it ever occur to anyone at the office that they might be dealing with a work of film art? Or do they think it’s a 100-minute (geez! 100 whole minutes…) Japanese cartoon that just needs English dialogue slapped across its length like so much whitewash? The wedding-procession sequence is one of the great moments in anime. The sacrament is meant to heighten the realization of Cagliostro’s defilement (Lupin himself makes this point as his “ghost” emerges from under the altar)–it’s chiaroscuro. Jodor’s making the sign of the Cross is an unexpected, understated, yet shocking gesture. There’s a layer even below this: the black robes and hoods worn by the Shadowmen in their honor guard are reminiscent of the Inquisition, a real-life Cagliostro atrocity committed with the utmost piety and approval of Christ’s vicar on earth. The Church is here subsumed into the evil of Cagliostro…”

In contrast, the Manga dub is more faithful to the film… for the most part, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The voice acting here is plenty solid, with David Hayter being the stand-out as a Lupin both cocky and tender; my only complaint is leveled toward Jigen, who’s made to sound like a man in his late fifties when he can’t be that much older than Lupin himself. The biggest beef people have with this dub is the amount of profanity. In fact, Reed Nelson, who runs lupinthethird.com and is the de facto Lupin expert consulted for most of its US home video releases, included an alternate version of this dub on the 2015 DVD, one without all the swearing. I think it’s for the best; while a little profanity is not out of place in the Lupin universe, even in Miyazaki’s lighter interpretation, Manga goes over the top, peppering the script with “bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard” everywhere they can.

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Personally, my big issue with the Manga dub is that, like the Streamline dub, it feels the need to ruin quiet scenes with needless chatter. It’s not as bad, of course, but the problem is still there. We don’t need Lupin explaining his disguise when he crosses the Cagliostro border and we don’t need a joke about interior decorating when Lupin descends into the corpse-filled dungeon beneath the castle either. I get so annoyed by this fear of quiet moments, of letting the audience breathe while the film takes its time. It’s not like these scenes hurt the pacing; if anything, it damages the pacing to eliminate the quieter moments.

People can handle silence, but American films are terrified of boring the audience. Miyazaki brought this up during an interview:

“If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment [of silence], then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb. The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over.”

In the end, the best way to go with any foreign film is the original language with subtitles. I’m not partial to either dub, they’re much too noisy for me. Still, it is nice to have options, even if they’re flawed ones.