With only one feature film under his belt, the Lupin the Third spinoff The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki had established his sense of scope. Miyazaki had a love of adventure, castles, and airplanes, and an ability to construct amazing action sequences in his own distinct animation style. In short, he did a lot with a known property. At the time, people were upset because he strayed so much from the source material’s dark and violent tone.
With his second film, he wouldn’t have to worry about changing source material, because he’s the one who wrote it. The first wholly Miyazaki film (and the movie that gave birth to Studio Ghibli) is 1984’s inventive, disturbing, and lyrical Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
While Cagliostro did have the precursors to some of the filmmaker’s more indelible ideas, themes, and images, Nausicaä puts them all on the forefront, and adds a great deal more. So, you get huge airships, ornate castlery and kingdoms, but you also get ancient societies, the battle between man/machinery and nature/magic, and what would become his most defining feature — a young, smart female protagonist who has the compassion many around her lack. That truly is the biggest through-line in Miyazaki’s work. Nearly all of his films after Nausicaä have a character like this as either the main character or the secondary lead. The amazing thing is how, with all of these repeated ideas, he managed to continually reinvent and innovate in multiple genres.
This film is falls into the post-apocalyptic genre that so much manga and anime explores. It’s a thousand years since humans effectively destroyed the planet with the violent “Seven Days of Fire,” a chemical and biological war that gave rise to a Toxic Jungle which has grown to cover most of the rest of Earth. Within it, huge and terrifying creatures have sprung up, including the enormous Ohm, which look kind of like trilobites. The word “behemoth” would be underselling these things. But there are small patches of non-toxic land (which continually shrink as the jungle grows), and this is where the remaining humans have settled, splitting into different kingdoms. One of these is the titular Valley of the Winds where Nausicaä is the princess.
Nausicaä has learned to communicate with the Toxic Jungle and she flies out there often, trying to discover the source of the toxicity and perhaps how to make it ebb. One night in the Valley she and others witness a massive airship crash, and Nausicaä races to see if she can save anyone. Before the survivors succumb to their injuries, they beseech Nausicaä to destroy the ship’s cargo: the embryo of a Giant Warrior, a bio-mechanized golem of the kind that obliterated the planet all those years ago. Unfortunately, the princess of a neighboring kingdom wants this Warrior to destroy the jungle (even though prophecy states that would be disastrous) and she and her army subjugate the Valley of the Wind, claiming to bring “safety” along with their rule.
When yet another kingdom vies for control of the embryo, it ends up working with the Valley of the Wind. But the unthinkable happens and the old, blind seer woman’s foretelling of a person “clothed in blue robes, descending onto a golden field, to join bonds with the great earth and guide the people to the pure lands at last” becomes crucial. This person might be Nausicaä herself (and since this is an adventure story, it definitely is), and so she must unite the kingdoms or allow more destruction to beset humanity.
There’s no two ways about it; this movie is badass. While it features elements of a typical princess-driven fairy tale, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds doesn’t pull any punches with its End of Days imagery, its rather brutal-at-times violence, and its design of all the futuristic Mad Max-ish air vehicles. As I’ve said before, Miyazaki loves it when people fly, and if they can fly in cool machines, all the better.
The characters in Nausicaä are also quite interesting and play into Miyazaki’s later themes as well. The hero of the film is the a young girl, strong, capable, smart, and warm. However, other pivotal characters are also female. The movie’s ostensible villain, Princess Kushana, is cold and calculating. The one who sees the prophecy is the blind old woman Obaba. The one who crashes the airship at the beginning is yet another princess. Never before had princesses (the word in fiction becoming a synonym for “damsel in distress”) been this action-oriented or this prevalent in the storytelling. Even in Cagliostro, the princess has to be saved and is played as particularly innocent; here, though, Miyazaki makes princesses the driving force of the action.
The male characters are all supporting: Nausicaä’s sick father acts as the necessary sacrifice to move the plot along; the swordsman Lord Yuba acts as Nausicaä’s mentor and moral protector who stops her from becoming too overcome with thoughts of revenge; the young boy Asbel helps Nausicaä and becomes her friend, heroic in his own way but never becoming the de-facto savior or rescuer. All are important to the main character’s life, but are all subservient in a narrative sense to Nausicaä.
For only his second feature film, Hayao Miyazaki delivers the trademark fantasy and poignancy while still having the edge he possessed making anime television in the 1970s. The success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind gave birth to Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki founded with his friend, fellow director and producer of this film Isao Takahata. His next 9 features and many others by different filmmakers would bear the name Ghibli, though they didn’t yet have their emblem. That would come in a few years.
Next time, we will be continuing on a lot of the themes of Nausicaä, but in a straight-up steampunk fantasy in which the main character is again a bright young girl. Castle in the Sky is next.