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.