On some level, it's personally satisfying for me to review one of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films. I rarely discuss it now, but there was a time when I was something of an anime enthusiast, drawn to the challenging visual and thematic territory the medium often explores. This led to my appreciation of cinema on an aesthetic level, and years spent watching anime the way it was intended to be watched – in Japanese, with English subtitles – made crossing over and exploring the depths of foreign language cinema that much more of a natural extension.
Before all that, however, I consumed more than I would like to admit. Some of it in retrospect is particularly embarrassing, while a few series I still remember fondly (taking in all 26 or so episodes of Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion had to be more stimulating than half of what played in local theaters). Of course, that time in my life is behind me at this point, and aside from sporadic viewings with friends who still harbor love for the stuff, I usually find it hard to appreciate the medium as I once did.
Still, there are some names whose work hasn't lost any of its cachet with me. Satoshi Kon is one, his Millennium Actress being arguably the pinnacle of animation this decade, along with Studio Ghibli auteurs Isao Takahata (director of the 1988 masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies) and Hayao Miyazaki.
Of that group, Miyazaki is king; he's pumped out far more films than the notoriously slow Takahata, and has amassed a good deal more work than Kon as well. He's given us at least one incontestable classic (2002's career-summing Spirited Away) and only a single misfire (2005's Howl's Moving Castle, which he did not write). Even Pixar, that other standard-setting studio of animation excellence, acknowledges Miyazaki's supremacy, and even their impressive canon (specifically 2007's screwball Marx Brothers riff Ratatouille and the twin Toy Story films of the '90s) can't match that of the master.
So it's with some disappointment that revisiting Miyazaki's second feature, 1984's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, seemed to yield diminishing returns. This was the first (unofficial) production of Studio Ghibli, the first film to unite Miyazaki with Takahata (here serving as producer) and the first time the director worked with his indispensable music collaborator Joe Hisaishi. Still, watching the film for the first time in many years, there's little doubt that Nausicaä represents Miyazaki's aesthetic in chrysalis. The filmmaker embeds the same environmentally conscious themes which have earned him legions of ardent fans, and exercises his already impeccable animation chops and impressive attention to detail.
But it's hard not to recognize the conflict between the ever-expanding forest (here dubbed "The Sea of Decay") and the people living at its fringes and not think of the far more robust treatment a similar plot received in Miyazaki's 1998 feudal epic Princess Mononoke. Just as it's hard to not see the titular Nausicaä, a strong-willed girl with a powerful hold over nature, as similar to a half dozen other Miyazaki protagonists, each progressively more complex and memorable, leading up to his perfecting of the character with Chihiro in Spirited Away. The same could be said in regard to Miyazaki's always meticulous craft, here applied to every roughly drawn line characterizing his legion of insect creatures, but later animating his human characters and lending them seemingly insignificant but cumulatively meaningful behavioral traits, which in part make Chihiro such a fully realized character.
At the start of his film, Miyazaki quickly establishes narrative context through on-screen writing, which explains the setting as being "100 years after the collapse of industrial civilization." To me, this has always been a novel idea – envisioning a future that's actually less advanced technologically than our own present – and it can be seen as one of many signposts throughout Miyazaki's body of work pointing to his fear of modernization. He follows this move with an even more potent storytelling technique, presenting a collage of cave drawings for the camera to pan over slowly, accompanied by Hisaishi's symphonic and resonant score, which loses none of its grandeur despite twinges of dated '80s cheese. This could be considered a form of that age-old cinematic device known as "doubling." Miyazaki presents us with information in one way, and then another, using a different medium. The effect is not one of redundancy, but of immersion; during the opening credit sequence we already feel like a part of this world Miyazaki has created, and understand it to be a variation on our own.
All this confirms the man's faith in the capacity for pictures – drawings – to tell a story without words, and his faith in his younger viewers' ability to comprehend that story. Miyazaki has never talked down to children in his films, and that's always been one of his greatest strengths, as well as an attribute few if any filmmakers share.
The film proper begins with a peaceful image of clouds drifting through a clear blue sky. Nausicaä comes sailing through on her jet-powered, one-person glider, and Miyazaki tracks her until she lands gracefully on the ground, confronting a dense, Dr. Seuss-esque jungle of purple plumed palms. Nausicaä unsheathes a rifle from the wing of her glider and presses on. It's clear immediately that this is not a Disney princess or any damsel in distress – Nausicaä, like Miyazaki himself, is an adventurer, and the filmmaker wants you to be aware of this from the first frame.
He furthers this female empowerment by setting up a situation in which Nausicaä rescues a drifter from a giant bug/crustacean crossbreed. She swoops in and stuns the attacker, using a special whistle to lull it out of its rage – noticeable by glowing red eyes that fade to blue – and driving it into the jungle from whence it came. The creature is later revealed to be one of the planet's most feared: an "Ohmu," guardians of the Sea of Decay, said to stampede the cities of those who attempt to destroy their territory. This becomes central to the film's plot, as the man Nausicaä saved turns out to be the girl's old friend and teacher Lord Yupa, who brings news to Nausicaä's village, the titular Valley of the Wind, that the pervasiveness of the Sea of Decay has led to the destruction of whole kingdoms at an increasingly rapid rate.
The Valley of the Wind is one of few bastions of peace and prosperity left in a world plagued by war and pollution. The deadly spores which populate the Sea of Decay emit a toxicity that makes the land inhospitable, and as it spreads, the human race's extinction becomes all the more imminent. In the Valley, the people live modest, earthy lives. They're ruled by a bed-ridden king, Nausicaä's father, and their robes and castles instantly recall medieval Europe, but as is so often the case with these too-good-to-be-true utopias, tranquility is fleeting.
When a neighboring empire's advanced airship crashes into the rocks outside the village, it brings with it burdens previously unfamiliar to Nausicaä and her countrymen. Yupa, however, being a nomad on a never-ending quest to discover the secret truths of our world, is all too aware what this accident means, and is able to identify the disturbing cargo the crashed ship carries – as well as its apocalyptic implications. He knows that Nausicaä, who possesses both a mysterious gift which allows her to communicate with nature and, as a princess, the power to unite a people, is humanity's last hope for survival, and likely "the one" he's been looking for to fulfill a certain prophecy.
Admittedly, Nausicaä's plot is its least interesting aspect; largely because the friction between various human tribes is more complex, and the encroaching presence of nature more richly employed both thematically and visually in Princess Mononoke, which also features a warrior princess as the determining factor in humanity's future. But Nausicaä is more interesting when considered in the context of that later work, and it should not be looked upon as a first draft but as a more idealistic film from a younger filmmaker.
In Princess Mononoke, all the characters look older and more battle-worn. The violence is unsparing, more pronounced than in any other Miyazaki film. The tone is darker, and compared to the pastel shades of Nausicaä, so are the colors. The warrior princess is fierce and animalistic in Mononoke, possessing none of the personable qualities of Nausicaä and certainly not the latter's altruism. It's not altogether unfounded to assume that Miyazaki was, at the time of Mononokes' production, less optimistic about the future of our planet than he was when he made Nausicaä.
And comparing the two films yields much of interest. Whereas Nausicaä's conclusion is largely one of peaceful compromise brought about by an individual's martyrdom, Mononoke ends on a note of uncertainty, with the push-pull dynamic of nature and humanity's coexistence sure to be tested again. Likewise Miyazaki is less idealistic about the romance in Mononoke, a different-sides-of-the-tracks relationship met with resistance on both sides. In Nausicaä, the bond the protagonist shares with a gunship pilot from another country seems almost an afterthought, and their union comes with no sacrifice.
But somehow all this is okay; there's enough of Miyazaki's unmatched and boundless imagination on display in both the rendering of colorful creatures and expansive landscapes, as well as the carefully designed airships and vehicles which bear the filmmaker's distinctive mark. Miyazaki emerged out of the gate a great animator, and as early as in this film and even in his debut, 1979's Lupin III installment The Castle of Cagliostro, he's displayed a gift for visual invention matched only in the live action medium by perhaps Guillermo Del Toro.
There may be no scene here quite as jaw-dropping and memorable as the sight of the Forest God's celestial patterned body decaying all over the land in Princess Mononoke, or that of Spirited Away's gluttonous No Face digesting all manner of food and frogs. But Nausicaä's most striking moment, in which a "Giant Warrior" fights to obey his human master's command as he decomposes on a hillside (due to the folly of said human's impatience), is nearly as meticulously drawn (by, of all people, Evangelion creator Hideaki Ano) as anything Miyazaki's overseen, and conveys the same quintessential Miyazaki ideal. Neither nature nor humanity is infallible. Each relies on the other and hopes for a state of symbiosis not easily achieved. More than anything though, you have to appreciate Miyazaki's unwavering commitment to this specific project; it's based on a manga book series which he wrote and drew, serialized over the course of 13 years; and only the first quarter was finished by the time of the film's production.
Every Miyazaki film feels like a labor of love, but perhaps none more so than Nausicaä, which in effect breathed life into Studio Ghibli and brought significant awareness to the career of one of today's most valued cinematic artists.