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.