My house sits on a small meadow, at different tiers owing to the craggy glacial deposits that make up this part of the country. The lower portion of the meadow is flat, tapering off from its hilly upper portions and ending in a small pond we used to swim in a lot when I was younger. We don’t swim in it anymore though because a series of powerful rainstorms followed by two consecutive hurricanes in recent years, caused the pond to overflow its banks, kickstarting the process of ecological succession. It’s now slowly transforming into a wetland. The children of the previous owners liked baseball a lot, and used to use this part of the meadow as a baseball field. In fact, you can still see the small piece of shale they would use as home plate, though each year it vanishes further and further into the ground as the grass grows around it. The meadow is surrounded on all sides by mixed broadleaf forest, and on certain summer days in June the wind hits the deciduous trees at such an angle that the sunlight is reflected brilliantly off the bottoms of the leaves. If you were to look up on those days, you would see towering, rolling structures of cloud drifting by in the endlessly deep blue summer sky, and might catch a glimpse of a distant plane travelling far overhead.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not a movie. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not a manga. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is somebody’s magnum opus. This is a life’s work collected to chronicle one person’s metamorphosis and growth over the course of a career. The piece we get to look at today is but a tiny, tiny fraction of an indescribably, incomparably sprawling work of philosophy and emotion (as all works of art ultimately are, but this one embodies this truth better than others), and yet even so it still manages to be a crystal clear, defining statement by and about its creator, even if it only catches him at one specific moment in time.
Where can I even begin talking about something like this? I suppose with Nausicaä’s medium, Hayao Miyazaki, an artist who is as acclaimed and beloved as he is misunderstood. Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli are major players in what’s often called the Renaissance Age of Animation: Roughly lasting the period between 1985 and 1995 (though people do squabble over the start and end dates), this period saw animation as a medium almost completely casting aside the negative connotations it had accumulated, however fairly or unfairly that may be, over the course of the Long 1960s. For the first time since the 1940s, critics began to sit up and take notice of the work animators were doing and cartoons began to be taken seriously as legitimate forms of creative expression for what was, in retrospect, probably the last time.
(Hell, even Scooby-Doo was pretty fantastic during this period, at least as far as I’m concerned. The Scooby-Doo of 1983-1991 was more or less the best the franchise had been since 1969.)
In the United States, the Renaissance Age is usually pegged as starting with Disney’s The Little Mermaid in 1989, the studio’s first properly successful blockbuster family musical in twenty years. But even for Disney it’s more accurate to say it really began with Adventures of the Gummi Bears in 1985 and DuckTales in 1986, two series that affirmed the studio’s newfound focus on quality control and changed the landscape of Saturday Morning Cartoons: Once seen as the dumping ground for the absolute dregs of children’s entertainment, shows like these made a firm statement that the medium need not be neglected, and that Disney was a studio that was now going to lavish the same amount of care and attention it was famous for giving its movies on any work that went out under its name. Gummi Bears and DuckTales set a massive precedent both within and without Disney, and would eventually be repackaged along with successor shows Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin and Marsupilami (based on the legendary Franco-Belgian graphic novel series) as The Disney Afternoon. And of course, one of the major architects of Disney’s Renaissance Age was none other than Michael Eisner, whom readers of this blog might know as the Paramount exec who oversaw Star Trek Phase II.
But though Eisner and Disney get the majority of the acclaim for this period, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Hayao Miyazaki. Many of the new artists Eisner brought to Disney were enormously influenced by the work Miyazaki was doing in Japan and wanted to replicate his lushness and sense of imagination for the new Disney. However, in a curious bit of mutual fannishness, the early Japanese animation industry, which inspired Miyazaki to become a manga artist and animator himself, owed a significant debt to the Disney Animated Canon movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed Miyazaki’s stature in the modern Japanese animation industry, along with his influence on the Disney Renaissance, is so great that this is likely the reason Disney specifically asked his permission, practically begged, to be the official distributor of his movies in the United States in the 2000s.
As an artist and a creator, Miyazaki is frequently seen as returning to three specific themes over and over again: Environmentalism, feminism and an almost latter-day Spielbergian fixation on a sentimental conception of childhood wonder and innocence. And, while these may be loosely fitting descriptors in the broadest possible sense, they also do Miyazaki a massive disservice, stripping him and his oeuvre of almost all of the personal and cultural context necessary to properly read it. Miyazaki can do children’s literature and he’s arguably the most famous for his work that is, but firstly when he does it’s anything but sentimental for sentimentality’s sake and secondly this isn’t the only thing he’s capable of. And while the natural world and female perspectives do in fact run very, very deep in Miyazaki’s work and it’s not inaccurate or misleading to call him a feminist and an environmentalist, he is both of those things, that doesn’t capture the full complexity and nuance with which he approaches these themes in his work.
Miyazaki’s naturalism, and his feminism, comes from a very elemental place. When he talks about the environment and the natural world in his work, it’s in neither the facile, hippieish “we’re polluting our lakes and streams and we need to ask our governments for some lobbying concessions to pass environmental regulations” nor the old, familiar “folly and hubris of humanity versus the purity of the natural order” trope that even Carl Sagan ultimately succumbed to. Miyazaki actually, sincerely sees a fundamental and toxic disconnect between humanity and the rest of the universe, not just material, but spiritual, that we’ve built around ourselves and is trying to express this. This is not, by the way, simply because he’s Japanese-Miyazaki’s beliefs are grounded just as much in fervently radical left-wing decentralist politics as they are in a reverence for nature, and he is in fact so far left of left he’s been deemed a “traitor” and an “enemy of Japan” a number of times throughout his career. Ironic, given the fact he is also, paradoxically, considered a beloved and iconic cultural staple.
Miyazaki explicitly blames industrialization, capitalism and globalization (at least in the technologistic and corporatist sense, part of what Manuel Castells calls the network society, which is a separate thing from cultural diffusion) for making modern society inauthentic, insincere and plastic and for creating an environment that fosters the evils of imperialism and patriarchy. This is a guy who has openly fantasized about Tokyo being wiped out by a natural disaster, not out of some kind of misplaced eschatological apocalypse pornography, but because it would be victory for the forces of the Earth pushing back against industrial capitalism’s inherent dehumanization that severs the link between humanity and the natural world. As wary as Miyazaki is of his own country, though (he has admitted he found his childhood in the Shōwa period, an era marked by Japan’s rapid and unprecedented embrace of modernity, confusing and disturbing) he outright condemns the United States, actively protests its government, foreign and economic policy and refuses to visit except under very special circumstances.
In short, Hayao Miyazaki is not a person it’s easy to dismiss with vague platitudes.
How interesting then that Miyazaki’s masterpiece would be a sweeping war epic about love and empathy starring a warrior princess who fights without fighting and isn’t really even a princess. A Hayao Miyazaki movie that isn’t for or about children, yet which operates with an honesty, heart and truthfulness that all the very best children’s literature has. A story about the natural world that deliberately eschews banal “man vs. nature” themes and angry polemics to cry out to us in a heartfelt and yearning plea to rekindle our understanding of one another. An action sci-fi story where all the action happens around us and where the spectacular sci-fi elements are a source of misguided tragedy and grotesque horror. And a movie considered the beginning of the Studio Ghibli Animated Canon that wasn’t even made by Studio Ghibli. For, as popular and acclaimed as My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away may be, there’s no work work of Hayao Miyazaki’s that’s more emblematic of his positionality, and no work that’s greater, than Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
If we’re going to talk about anything of Miyazaki’s on Vaka Rangi, this has to be the one to do. Not only is it the most personal work of his by far, it’s also one of the many import Japanese movies Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda watched in the Star Trek: The Next Generation break room and the movie that got one of the biggest nods in the show itself. And it changed my life.
Although the story takes place on an unparalleled scale and in one of the grandest and most beautiful constructed fantasy worlds in all of fiction, the true heart and soul that all of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind revolves around is nothing more or less than Nausicaä herself. Nausicaä is born of reappropriation and detournement at every level, coming into the world fully-formed through the inspired childhood dreams of a young Hayao Miyazaki. She of course inherits her name, and her title, from the Princess Nausicaä of The Odyssey, who rescues Odysseus near the beginning of the story when he washes ashore on the island of Phaecia. But this Nausicaä does not come directly from The Odyssey, but rather from the book Gods, Demigods and Demons by Bernard Evslin, an author famous for his summaries and adaptations of Greek myths done for high school students. Miyazaki had read a version of Evslin’s book translated into Japanese by Minoru Kobayashi where The Odyssey‘s Nausicaä was said to be “renowned for her love of nature and music, her fervid imagination and disregard for material possessions”, according to Miyazaki biographer Dani Cavallaro. Miyazaki was profoundly moved and inspired by this description, and was crestfallen to discover upon reading The Odyssey itself that Nausicaä was nowhere near as important or memorable a character as Evslin made her out to be.
But though she shares her name and title with Homer’s character, our Nausicaä is shaped just as much by “The Lady who Loved Insects”, a traditional Japanese folk tale dating to the twelfth century Heian period about a princess who rejects court etiquette and her expected social role by refusing to marry, much preferring to spend her time in the field studying insects. The princess does not understand why people only see beauty in a butterfly and don’t also appreciate the beauty of a caterpillar, which is the same creature, just at a different stage of its life. Miyazaki enjoyed this story greatly as a child and often tried to imagine what might have become of that princess, but both he and Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene caution that while we as modern readers immediately want to sympathize with her, the short story was likely originally written as a work of satire meant to criticize those who do not follow proper societal conventions and expectations.
From this congress of idea and memory came Nausicaä, clad in sky-blue garments and adrift upon the wind.
Summarising what Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is about is an utterly pointless and impossible feat: This is an epic continuing serial that lasted fourteen entire years between 1982 and 1994, boasts a level of worldbuilding detail that makes The Lord of the Rings look phoned in and actually changes its entire philosophical ethos and message at several points as Miyazaki’s own views shift and mature. It is nothing short of one person’s true life’s work, with every panel of its four volumes written and drawn by Miyazaki and Miyazaki alone with just a pencil. The bare basics of the story and setting are that following the end of the last age, civilization destroyed itself in a great cataclysm called the Seven Days of Fire, where industrial radioactive engines known as God Warriors were set loose to salt the Earth, rendering much of it a lifeless desert and marking the end of the Old Universe. In the centuries since then, a corrosive jungle inhabited by fantastical species of insects and fungus known as the Sea of Corruption is spreading across the land, wiping out the last vestiges of humanity for some unknown purpose. Meanwhile, two ancient and bloated empires, the Torumekians and the Doroks, spar with each other to consolidate the rapidly shrinking tracts of inhabitable land.
There remains one province independent of both imperial rule and the Sea of Corruption, the verdant and pastoral seaside periphery kingdom called the Valley of the Wind, where Nausicaä rules as princess. But, as the Valley of the Wind comprises under a thousand people, there’s no real royal family to speak of (save Nausicaä’s father) and she doesn’t live noticeably above the means of her “subjects” it’s more of an honouray title bestowed upon her because of her people’s love for her leadership and the admiration they hold her in. Nausicaä, unlike the empires or the rest of her people, does not fear the Sea of Corruption: To her, all life is sacred and all life is deserving of love, respect and understanding. Nausicaä is in fact an animist, and this philosophy defines her to her core. Nausicaä travels the world upon her jet-propelled glider Mehve (though giant airships and jet fighters still exist in Nausicaä’s world, she prefers to use a glider to ride with the natural currents of the wind instead of against it) to deepen her understanding about the Sea of Corruption and the rest of the natural world she lives in.
Something that I’ve always loved about the ocean is how, on really clear summer days, the sea reflects the blue of the sky above, becoming a glittering, sparkling liquid mirror of the sky above it. Sometimes at night, if the conditions are right, the phosphorescent plankton and the bioluminescent creatures from the deepest parts of the ocean will mirror the celestial sphere above, giving lucky travellers the feeling of being surrounded by stars. Water takes on many formes and has many moods: It is gentle and strong, and though it naturally follows the channels and curves of the Earth, it is also mighty enough to reshape the Earth beyond recognition. Many writers and artists have said the ocean has many emotions and is powerful and lovely in all of them, but to me, when the clear ocean waters meet the bright clear summer sky it’s the most beautiful of all.
The 1984 anime movie, which I’m technically trying to write about here, is a hyper-condensed adaptation of the story arc from the first volume and about three quarters of the second, which hadn’t been finished at the time of production (to give you an idea of *how* condensed, every single character in this movie, even if they only appeared onscreen for a few moments, has a fully fleshed-out backstory and character arc in the manga). The story as depicted here follows a Torumekian airship crash-landing in the Valley of the Wind, carrying a top-secret military detachment led by Princess Kushana and her Machiavellian second-in-command Kurotowa. The crash kills another princess, Lastelle, of the Torumekian annex Pejite which has been sparring with its imperial occupiers. With her last breath, Lastelle begs Nausicaä to burn the airship’s cargo, which is ultimately revealed to be the last remaining God Warrior, which Kushana’s superiors want her to use to expand the frontier boundaries of the Torumekian empire and wipe out the Sea of Corruption. It is later revealed Pejite provoked the Sea of Corruption to attack Torumekia by arousing the ire of the Ohmu, mammoth, trilobite-like insect guardians of the forest with whom Nausicaä shares a special bond, and will do the same to the Valley of the Wind to prevent Kushana from activating the God Warrior. Nausicaä takes it upon herself to put a stop to the fighting and to help soothe the anger and wounds of a world at war with itself.
There is a *lot* more to even this abbreviated version of the story, but I can’t go into any more detail as it would spoil the movie and the manga for those who haven’t read it yet, and I adamantly refuse to do that. This is something you absolutely have to experience for yourself. I can’t even give it a proper analysis, because this story defies critique. In spite of being a condensed adaptation of an unfinished manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is perfect. I have no other words for it than that. Somehow, Hayao Miyazaki took an infinitesimally small sliver of what would become his magnum opus, a manga that was perfect already, and turned it into a film that was every bit as perfect in its own way. In the world of mass media entertainment, that’s unheard of. Literally. I can’t think of it happening anywhere else. To paraphrase someone far more talented than I, it is an un-reviewable work. Cannot be done justice.
I mean, what do you want me to say? Do you want me to talk about how clever it is that Nausicaä’s telepathic powers are conveyed purely through the character’s movements and intrusive flashes of psychedelic editing and how that contrasts with the manga’s use of exposition speech bubbles to take advantage of film’s ability to use visual symbolism and also codes Nausicaä as a narrative outsider who denies the audience’s desire to voyeuristically see into her inner thoughts? Or how about the music and art direction, which are so legendarily breathtaking and evocative by virtue of being Hayao Miyzaki’s work it’s almost a cliche to bring it up at this point?
Do I credit the acting, which is possibly the single most brilliant and talented cast of actors I’ve ever seen? Hell, even the English dub by Disney, which I don’t recommend as your first exposure to the movie, is incredible: If you can get past Shia LeBouf as Lastelle’s twin brother Asbel, you might find that cast to be equally as brilliant as the original Japanese one. Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as Lord Yupa, Nausicaä’s fellow-traveller and sometimes-mentor, as is Edward James Olmos as her uncle Mito. Uma Thurman is a wonderful Kushana, and nobody could have done an English language version of Kurotowa better than Mark Hamill, with Tress MacNeille filling out the main cast as the wise woman Obaba. There’s even an unexpected and truly heart-wrenching cameo by Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, who appears at a crucial moment near the climax, serving as a wonderful and moving tribute and passing of the torch by the Disney Renaissance to the person who allowed it to happen.
Or perhaps I should just continue to stress the gentle strength and maturity of Nausicaä herself, who is not so much a character as a free agent. She is the embodiment of empathy and acceptance, yet is a masterful fighter and the protagonist of one of the most spectacular action sci-fi movies ever made. And this, not to understate the matter, turns everything on its head. Nausicaä does not triumph over anyone or anything, she listens to everyone and everything, and tries to promote understanding, both within herself and within those she meets. According to Miyazaki, this is intrinsically bound up with her being female: Men try to fight and dominate. Women love and understand. This means it’s easier for women to come to an animist worldview, because they don’t seek to conquer. You plug Nausicaä into one of those online “Mary Sue” tests they throw at beginning writers and she’ll catastrophically fail every one: She is absolutely someone who exists on a higher plane of existence, possesses singular and ill-defined mystical powers and is beloved by everyone she comes into contact with. Miyazaki even flatly said Nausicaä is not a “consummately normal” person. In the “mythic/mundane” divide, Nausicaä is mythic allthe way.
And it absolutely doesn’t matter. Nausicaä has attained a state of cosmic and spiritual awareness the rest of us don’t have. She has a life and will of her own. This even extends outside of the world of fiction with Miyazaki himself saying that he felt he needed to apologise to Nausicaä if he ever drew her out of character, and that there were times she would seem to change her visage by her own volition. She possesses and exudes an uncanny power, but it all stems from her empathy and sincerity. She doesn’t even have a character arc, not growing or developing once in fourteen whole years (as Miyazaki has also said, she doesn’t change, we just get to understand her better). Nausicaä was not created, she willed herself into existence. She is utterly her own person, and she is transcendent. But as an animist, she also knows that she is part of the larger natural and cosmic whole, and she finds this the most beautiful feeling of all. And as a shaman, she has a love for this world as much as any other (this actually becomes the key to the manga’s final moments, but like hell if I’m going to tell you what those are), so she knows her purpose is to somehow help make life better for us in the world we live in now.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is meaningful to me on so many different levels. I’ll be perfectly honest: I first saw the movie all the way through a little over a year ago as of this writing when I was researching this project. I watched it with my sister, whom I was trying to introduce Star Trek: The Next Generation to as part of a kind of prologue to the main event, as I knew this was a movie that show’s creative team had been influenced by. I was already familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s other, much more famous work, having seen Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke beforehand (the latter movie, by the way, is essentially the film adaptation of the second half of the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga as it goes over many of the same themes. Princess Mononoke‘s main characters, Ashitaka and San, can even be read very easily as the two halves of Nausicaä’s personality split into different people). But even so, Miyazaki had always been someone whose work I tended to appreciate more than I was a major fan of it. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind changed that. I was blown away.
And yet, although I was totally unprepared for how wonderful this movie was and it quickly shot to the top of my list of favourite movies, I still don’t think I fully comprehended why it was so important to me until later on. I decided the film was so good I needed to read (and likely cover) the source material too. So I got the manga, and was floored once again. I read the whole thing, all four volumes and fifty-nine chapters, in one night. The philosophy Nausicaä expresses through Miyazaki’s work, and the sheer incomparable weight of the work itself, hit very close to home to me, putting into words things I’d long thought about and clarifying a lot about my purpose and beliefs for me. I was in awe of the accomplishment I had just witnessed. And even so, it still didn’t register with me precisely how much this story, and Nausicaä herself, meant to me. That, at long last, happened a week ago as of this writing when, in total, hopeless frustration over how to get this essay to work, I decided to rewatch the movie, by myself this time.
I don’t want to come across as putting my sister down, she’s my best friend and probably my favourite person to watch movies and TV with, but there’s something about being alone with art and the thoughts and emotions it stirs in you. Something clicked with me that night, and though I’m still not sure what, I do know watching that film a second time brought emotions to the surface I hadn’t felt in a very long time and spoke to me in a way no other work of fiction is capable of. I was immediately reminded of memories, images and dreams that have been with me for as long as I can remember, and I saw in Nausicaä, for the first time, so much of the person I was years ago and the person I still want to be. The feelings, visions and ideas the movie awoke in me were not necessarily new ones, in many cases they were things I remember feeling in many of my other favourite works of art, but Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind captured every single one of the moments that were the most important and precious to me, and conveyed them better than I think anything else ever has. It was genuinely overwhelming for me. I feel at once like the humble farmers in the Valley of the Wind in awe of their princess’ utter goodness and utter genuineness and Nausicaä herself, ready to take off into a vast and wondrous world.
I can’t even begin to articulate how indescribably powerful Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is for me. I’ve come this far, written all this and I still don’t think I’ve even begun to say anything useful or analytically interesting. This is all just words, meaningless words. I feel like I’ve done Nausicaä a disservice and shouldn’t have even attempted collecting my thoughts like this. It might have been better just to link to this Amazon review of the Blu-ray release, which works just as well as an analysis as anything else. What more can I say, other than to call it my favourite movie and the single greatest science fiction movie of all time? It resonates with me on a level that nothing else is capable of doing, and as a constructed work of action sci-fi it will never be topped because it can never be topped. You can’t take the genre any further than a princess who ends humanity’s war with itself and the natural world by not fighting, and, given what we know of the ultimate fate of the cinematic spectacle method of storytelling, there’s simply no way something of this grandeur, magnitude and quiet, intimate power can ever happen again.
Please, if you take nothing else away from this project and ignore my opinions about everything else, please at least watch the film version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It is without question the greatest work we’re ever going to look at on this blog, and I doubt I’ll ever find something else that means quite as much to me.
Across the meadow there is an old jungle gym. When we were young, my cousins and I sometimes used to spend our summer afternoons on it, imagining it as the seat of any number of different fantasy scenarios. You used to be able to stand on it and look across at the pond, but the forest has been slowly encroaching over the years and that’s no longer possible. And, while the jungle gym is weathered, beaten and missing many pieces, it still stands out in the field and every time I visit it I still recall the memories we shared there long ago. And if you stand on it looking up on summer days, you can still see the endless blue of the sky and dream.