o/t: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

This was the third and last of the three essays I wrote for the epic, ongoing Science Fiction Movies Countdown being staged at Wonders in the Dark. (The countdown, running from #100 to #1, today reached #48, with a splendid essay by Sam Juliano on Them! (1954), a movie that I’ve somehow never managed to see.) Clearly this movie, unlike the other two about which I wrote for the countdown, has not even the very most tangential relationship to noir; but it was my introduction to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and thus means a great deal to me.

Nausicaa - 5 closer

Originally titled Kaze no Tani no Naushika
vt Nausicaä; cut vt Warriors of the Wind
Japan / 117 minutes / color / Topcraft, Toei Dir & Scr: Hayao Miyazaki Pr: Isao Takahata Story: Kaze no Tani no Naushika (1982 onward manga) by Hayao Miyazaki Cine: Yasuhiro Shimizu, Kôji Shiragami, Yukitomo Shudo, Mamoru Sugiura Voice cast: Sumi Shimamoto (Nausicaä), Yoshiko Sakakibara (Kushana), Yôji Matsuda (Asbel), Gorô Naya (Lord Yupa), Ichirô Nagai (Old Mito), Iemasa Kayumi (Kurotawa). Hisako Kyôda (Oh-Baba), Rihoko Yoshida (Teto), Mahito Tsujimura (Jhil), Kôhei Miyauchi (Goru), Jôji Yanami (Gikkuri), Minoru Yada (Niga), Mîna Tominaga (Lastel).

Sometime in the 1990s a friend of mine, the anime expert Andrew Osmond, suggested I should watch Nausicaä. I was skeptical. Although I knew something of Western animation—I’d written my book on Disney animation by then—I’d been unimpressed by the little anime I’d seen, which seemed to rely on cheesy, 1940s-pulp-style SF clichés and upskirt shots of giggling schoolgirls to cater to the onanistic pedophile market. (There are some upskirt shots in Nausicaä; they’re the one element I really dislike about the movie. Later Miyazaki would learn better, and abandon that particular anime tradition.)

You have to remember that the home video explosion was only just beginning, so it was very much harder to achieve the scope of movie watching that we enjoy today. Even so, thanks to a local video library I was able to lay hands on a not particularly stretched VHS of the movie, and settled in with my metaphorical popcorn.

Nausicaä was an eye-opener for me. In technical terms the animation came nowhere close to the standards of the features that I was accustomed to by Disney, Don Bluth et al., but by way of compensation many of the backgrounds were astonishingly beautiful; more than that, the visualization of Princess Nausicaä’s future world was quite stunning.

Nausicaa - 13 A vision of the time that the Ohma stampeded

Besides, Ralph Bakshi had shown us that technical excellence was far from the only criterion whereby to judge an animated movie. His 1992 animated/live action feature Cool World is not nearly so slick as 1988’s Disney/Richard Williams offering Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but conceptually it’s the more interesting of the two movies. In fact, it’s meaningful to think of Cool World and Nausicaä in the same breath, so to speak. Even though the two movies are quite unlike each other in almost every respect, what they share is an assured knowledge of the science-fantasy milieu in which they work and a willingness not to calibrate the complexities of their plots and concepts to the youthful audience at whom most cinemas of the day erroneously assumed animations were necessarily targeted. (Because of that same attitude, Nausicaä’s first appearance in the West was in the form of the diabolically dubbed, cut and otherwise mangled Warriors of the Wind [1985], released as kiddywink fodder.)

Nausicaa - 18 anywhere

The plot of Nausicaä is complicated—you could argue that in fact it’s too complicated, with Miyazaki trying to pack in too much of his own manga for the movie’s good. From time to time it’s hard to keep track of who’s responsible for what and why. But that seems a minor consideration alongside the joys of immersing oneself in the future world in which dwells the young girl Nausicaä, a princess of the people who dwell in the Valley of the Wind. The backstory of this world is given to us succinctly in the opening credits:

1000 years have passed since Earth succumbed to pollution generated by the very nations we now inhabit . . . Most of Earth is covered by the highly toxic Sea of Corruption.

We’re skillfully introduced to some features of that world, and to Nausicaä herself, as we follow the girl—she seems to be about fourteen or fifteen—into a cavern where she discovers the discarded shell of an Ohmu, one of the huge, many-eyed woodlouse-like monsters that dwell in the Toxic Sea and can ravage the land with their stampedes. The shell, being extremely hard, is of great value because of all the implements Nausicaä’s people will be able to make from it.

Before she can go too far, however, she must escape a cloud of poisonous spores. That done, she climbs onto her personal glider and . . .

Nausicaa - 6 Nausicaa pilots her glider

Nausicaä pilots her glider across the sands.

In these early sequences I found myself strongly reminded, both visually and in terms of world-building, of René Laloux’s cult animation La Planète Sauvage (1973). There was the same welter of alien plants and creatures, the same audacity of color, the same feeling that humans were very small by comparison with some of the elements of the environment in which they must survive. On a technical level, both use limited-animation techniques quite extensively. (For example, often only some of the figures in a sequence will be animated, others remaining motionless as part of the background cel.) The riot of exotic flora and fauna on a future Earth also reminds me of some written sources, like Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) and, much more recently, Keith Brooke’s Genetopia (2006).

Nausicaa - 8 anywhere

The wind never lets up in the valley — hence its name.

The people of the Valley of the Wind live an existence somewhat insulated from the rest of the world. Their ceaseless windmills power irrigation and agriculture. Nausicaä, daughter of the dying King Jhil, is one of the few who regularly journeys into the regions beyond the valley; using her glider as her primary means of transport, she’s essentially a naturalist, collecting specimens and displaying an uncanny affinity for the creatures she encounters—she can even soothe an enraged or terrified Ohmu, so that its eyes slowly ebb from red to the habitual turquoise. Another journeyer is her Uncle Yupa; a martial artist (a swordmaster), he travels with a companion, both of them astride creatures that look something like a cross between an emu and a camel.

Nausicaa - 4 Granny

Granny — King Jhil’s mother and thus Nausicaä’s grandmother. This crone appears almost unchanged in several of Miyazaki’s movies.

Nausicaä and Yupa are both at home in the village the night that a crippled aircraft crashlands in the valley. Bravely Nausicaä dashes through the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue from the wreckage a survivor, Lastel. Lastel is a princess abducted from the nation of Pejite by the armed forces of Tolmekia, a military kingdom. The Tolmekian aircraft contains also the embryo of a Giant Warrior, likewise seized from Pejite, that the Tolmekians hope to rear to adulthood. The Giant Warriors were genetically created monsters responsible for the legendary Seven Days of Fire during which most of the world was destroyed, along with human civilization.

Nausicaa - 10 The Pejite ship just before its crashland in the Valley

The people of the valley look up to see the Pejite ship just before it crashlands.

Nausicaa - 3 A vision of the Giant Warriors who ravaged the face of the planet

A vision of the Giant Warriors.

Before she dies, Lastel begs Nausicaä to ensure that the embryo is destroyed. Of course . . .

Next day, the Tolmekians arrive in the valley in force, determined to recover the embryo. They’re led by the warrior princess Kushana and her sidekick, General Kurotawa. Kushana is a splendid creation. Dramatic in her posture and movements, she seems like an icily beautiful adult woman in contrast to Nausicaä, who’s more adolescent, almost childish, and whose features are softer and less striking. We later learn that, despite outward appearances, Kushana is missing an arm and, she tells us darkly, other bits of her body in consequence of a scrap years ago with a giant insect. With her outward beauty, her heart of darkness and her devastated body, she might be thought of as an analog of the world around her.

Nausicaa - 14 Dimwit General Kurotawa and the warrior Princess Kushana

 Dimwit General Kurotawa and the Tolmekian warrior princess, Kushana.

Nausicaa - 12 Nausdicaa keeps a brave face after she's slain her father's murders

Nausicaä keeps a brave face after she’s slain her father’s murderers.

Nausicaa - 23 Yupa spies on Kurotawa and Kushana as they plan to bring the Giant Warrior to life

Yupa spies on Kurotawa and Kushana as they plan to bring the Giant Warrior to life.

That’s essentially the setup for a tale of adventure and seesawing fortunes, as almost singlehandedly Nausicaä must battle against not just the Tolmekians but the survivors of the devastation of Pejite, who’re every bit as likely as the Tolmekians to bring widespread destruction as they seek revenge.

Nausicaa - 16 Yupa and Granny watch the Tolmekian warfleet

Lord Yupa and Granny watch the Tolmekian warfleet depart.

An important part of this adventure narrative involves Nausicaä’s quest through the poisoned jungle in order to save a Pejite fighter pilot who’s crashlanded there, Asbel, who proves to be Lastel’s twin brother; Nausicaä rescues him from the very jaws of a gigantic snapdragon. At one stage they find themselves in a vast underground cavern that houses a petrified forest whose huge stone trees are crumbling away into sand—sand that lacks the toxins of the world’s surface soil.

Nausicaa - 21 The underground forest of petrified trees

The underground forest of petrified trees.

As Nausicaä has already discovered through experimental cultivation in a secret garden she’s created beneath her father’s fortress, given clean soil and water, drawn from far beneath the surface, plants will grow true, no longer toxic; it’s the world’s topsoil and surface water that are contaminated—even in the Valley of the Wind. She tells Asbel:

“The toxic plants slowly purify the pollution man created. They absorb poison from the soil into their bodies, and crystallize it into pure, clear sand. That’s how these caverns were formed.”

Nausicaa - 15 Nausicaa discovered by Lord Yupa in her secret underground garden

 Nausicaä, weary from her work in her secret underground garden.

In the climax of the tale an enormous herd of Ohmu stampedes, seemingly unstoppably, toward the Valley of the Wind, where their progress will undoubtedly destroy every last man, woman and child there.

Nausicaa - 26 The stampede of millions of enraged Ohmu toward the Valley

The stampede of the Ohmu.

Unstoppable? Not quite. Remember the extraordinary rapport Nausicaä enjoys with the creatures of her world. But will she die in the saving of the valley?

Nausicaa - 22 Asbel explains to Nausicaa what he's been up to as she slept

Miyazaki could so easily have let Asbel — a boy, after all — take over as action lead, but mercifully he resisted the temptation.

Much of the action involves aircraft, from Nausicaä’s little glider to Asbel’s fighter to the warrior and freighter behemoths of the Tolmekians. All through his life Miyazaki has been fascinated by flight and flying machines, and this fascination shows very clearly here (although one has to puzzle whence the gasoline for the craft’s engines comes). The movie features a couple of aerial dogfights, and these are extremely well handled. Here and elsewhere there’s a marvelous sense of mass about the larger aircraft: as the people of the Valley of the Wind look up to see the crippled freighter fly over their village, and later when the Tolmekian hordes arrive, there’s that same feeling of airborne enormity we find in the climax of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or with the motherships in Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996).

Nausicaa - 17 Nausicaa stares in horror as the Pejite fighter shoots down the Tolmekian behemoth on which she's an unwilling passenger

Nausicaä stares in horror as a Pejite fighter attacks the Tolmekian freighter on which she’s an unwilling passenger.

Animated in a very different style from the rest is a nightmarish near-death experience that Nausicaä undergoes. (There’s a partial reprise later.) She’s a small child again, wandering through a sea of wind-caressed grain, singing a meaningless little song, when she sees her father and mother riding on ahead. They reach out for her, beckoning her to join them in the afterlife. Eventually there’s a myriad of grasping hands stretching toward her, blandly encouraging her to take the easy, comfortable option of death. The very drawerly visual style is reminiscent of Richard Williams’s celebrated TV commercials in the UK for Truman’s Bitter and—without the raucousness—of My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), done by Miyazaki’s longtime colleague, and producer on Nausicaä, Isao Takahata.

Nausicaa - 20 The myriad of Nausicaa's near-death experience

Countless greedily beckoning hands try to lure Nausicaä to the next world.

Nausicaä was Miyazaki’s first feature movie after The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), which was part of the Lupin III franchise; before then he’d done a fair amount of work for TV, including on the Lupin III series. (For what it’s worth, The Castle of Cagliostro is by far my favorite of the Lupin III movies.) Nausicaä was done under the auspices of Toei, with the animation done by Topcraft.

Nausicaa - 25 anywhere

A few weeks after the release of Nausicaä, Miyazaki, Takahata and others founded Studio Ghibli and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history. Miyazaki’s next feature, the first under the Ghibli regime, was Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), itself a very imaginative piece of science fantasy, one that’s far too often overlooked. It’s really quite noticeable how much better the technical standards of the animation are on Laputa than they are on Nausicaä. Most of Miyazaki’s later movies are fantasies, although he would revisit science fantasy triumphantly in 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a novel by the late and very, very much lamented Diana Wynne Jones.

Nausicaa - 27 The Giant Warrior attempts to raise itself at Kushana's command

The Giant Warrior, born disabled, attempts to raise itself at Kushana’s command.

Nausicaä spells out in emphatic terms some of the themes that have run all the way through Miyazaki’s oeuvre. The aircraft we’ve noted. Far more important are the messages concerning two necessities if we’re to survive as a civilization or even as a species: we need to end our blithe destruction of the environment and we need to discover how to make pacifism work. “We need to stop all this killing!” yells Nausicaä at one point as she stands atop a plane wing with tracer bullets flying all around her.

It may seem a bit of naiveté on her and Miyazaki’s part, but they’re right.

Nausicaa - 28 Weakened the Giant Warrior might be, but its blast still has devastating effect; the parallel with a nuclear blast is explicit

Nausicaa - 1 opener

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