We talk a lot about Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and for good reason. His animated films are among the most visually stunning, emotionally charged, and beautifully satisfying of any ever made. And yet most of the praise is heaped at perennial family favorites like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service, or his socially conscious fantasy tales Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. They're amazing, yes, but a film of his that never gets its due is 1984's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It turns 35 on March 11, and it may well be the best anime nobody ever talks about.
The first feature Miyazaki directed was 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro, a big screen spin-off of the popular Lupin the Third manga and anime series. While that movie is a ton of fun and displays the director's prowess with action, it lacked a bit of the thoughtfulness we've come to expect. Nausicaä on the other hand--adapted from his own manga novel--has absolutely everything that makes Miyazaki who he is, from his love of flight to his devotion to nature and ecology. It's all there in a post-apocalyptic package that should get talked about in the same breath as Mononoke or Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, but never is.
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 insect creatures have sprung up, including the enormous Ohm, which kind of look 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 flies 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.
The film deals with the idea of humanity's covenant with Earth and the creatures who live on it in much the same way Princess Mononoke would 13 years later. Both have humans on the brink of destroying the Earth through their smoke-belching machinery and hubris, and both find pseudo-mystical animals who are at once at odds with humanity but might also be the key to salvation. We in both instances have a princess as our lead character and a militaristic woman as the antagonist. The difference, of course, is that Mononoke used a fantasy version of Feudal Japan as its setting while Nausicaä is set thousands of years in the future, with airships and robots and things.
The other difference might be Miyazaki's own mentality at the time. In Nausicaä we have violence and terror, but the ultimate message is hope that humans will learn their lesson and the world will be at peace. By the time of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki was much more cynical about the ecological state of the globe and expressed it in the film with a message that the Earth and its wonders will survive in spite of humanity, which is all but destined to kill itself off. That the more hopeful film is the one set in the steampunk post-apocalypse is a great irony of the genre.
And maybe it's that underlying hopefulness mixed with the setting that makes Nausicaä seem lesser in Miyazaki's cinema. Only four years after Nausicaä, Otomo would usher in the cyberpunk revolution in anime with Akira, a deeply cynical story of humanity destroying itself with technology, but with almost no thought at all given to the natural world. Akira at its heart is a sci-fi nightmare of the slightly-ahead-of-now world, fully recognizable as Tokyo, once again on the brink of annihilation. Nausicaä in comparison is much more of a fantasy, from its idyllic Valley of the Wind and gliding machines to creatures we've never seen before. Hell, Nausicaä herself even has a pet that looks like a rejected Eevee design.
But Nausicaä has so much more going for it than what could be construed as cutesy fairy tales. The action in the movie is hard-hitting and fast, evidenced the rage-fueled beating Nausicaä gives enemy knights after they kill her father. She's a warrior, and Yupa, her sword master mentor, is so skilled he can kill a knight with one movement. There's a brutality at work that seems atodds with Miyazaki's visual style, but is right at home in the genre. The monstrous Ohm are also suitably terrifying...at first, until their true nature is revealed.
In the character of Nausicaä, we have Miyazaki's first strong heroine, a character archetype he'd return to in nearly all of his films to come. She's obviously skilled and tough and unafraid to sacrifice her own safety for the security of her people, but she's also highly sensitive and attuned to nature and the world around her in a way no one else in the film is. Princess Kushana, the head of the military state Torumekia, is just as strong-headed and concerned for her people's safety, but she does it by fearing the natural world, sure that the Ohm and the Toxic Forest are evil and must be eradicated. She even has a robotic golden arm, furthering her ties to machines over nature. Fittingly, Kushana's metal arm is a mirror of Nausicaä's, where her furry friend constantly sits.
When it comes to sci-fi, and especially sci-fi anime, we tend to only take seriously the stories with the more adult themes and the downbeat ending, but in terms of messaging and execution, Nausicaä is right on that level. Miyazaki became known for his family fare for the rest of his career, but to lump all of his films into that category downplays their willingness to tackle real world issues. It just doesn't do it with R-rated content the way post-Akira sci-fi anime would.
On its 35th birthday, give Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind another look, and see it for the glorious work of fiction and artistry it is.
Images: Studio Ghibli