In Hayao Miyazaki‘s 1984 epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind we find our titular heroine on a quest to save what’s left of a post-apocalyptic world from being destroyed as it was hundreds of years earlier. A true product of the 80’s (see: The Dark Crystal, Dune, Conan, etc) Nausicaä carves a nice place in the fantasy genre, but more importantly it is a bit of an anomaly in the Ghibli resume.
Not only will you find giant monsters, bizarre plants and animals, prophecies and a host of fantastic elements but even Nausicaä herself is the type of character seldom seen in Ghibli films. You could argue that Nausicaä is the first (aside from maybe Mononoke) true “hero” in the Miyazaki universe and that’s not only (for its time) original but refreshing and inspiring actually.
The current world the characters inhabit has plunged into a dismal state (its downfall, beautifully if hauntingly, illustrated in the opening credits) where by a Toxic Jungle now encompasses much of the planet. Worse, its flora and fauna are not only enormously dwarf the remaining human inhabitants, they are also extremely deadly…and their presence is steadily growing.
Nausicaä and her people have learned to adapt and coexist with this new toxic stricken planet; more importantly they know what boundaries not to cross. She can communicate with animals and is more than capable of looking out for herself and her people. But when two rivaling kingdoms (who lack an understanding/respect for the Toxic Jungle and its creatures) wage war on each other in a continual disagreement on how to take the planet back, they bring everyone in this post-apocalyptic world this much closer to destroying themselves again. It’s surprising what level and depth of story is packed into this animated feature and few films of the time or since have been able to match its grandeur. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the last 45 minutes are action packed and jaw dropping to say the least.
As mentioned above, Nausicaä is a different sort of female character. She’s not placed in any out of her element situations, not at all bewildered as she faces unfamiliar cratures/worlds, she’s not even longing for true love and (throwing out the last of the Miyazaki earmarks) there’s no cats either:P. No, Nausicaä is a true leader and protector of her people and is the one voice of reason in a world where the last of the humans are trying to rectify the mistake their ancestors made.
The film is beautifully drawn with action sequences that are so real you almost forget you were watching an animated feature. Attention is paid in exquisite detail from the tiniest of mannerisms (quite typical for Ghibli films actually) all the way up to sweeping scenes that involve riding, flying, gliding, you name it. Even the world/creatures of the Toxic Jungle seem like something out of the minds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Frazetta and even H.R. Giger yet while entirely foreign it’s still captivating. It’s true that this story is a long way from the more familiar (and kid friendly) Miyazaki films, like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, but while not one of my top 5 favorites, Nausicaä is a really good story that succeeds in entertaining as well as getting its message across.
While this film plays like an extention of his work from Lupin III, Hayao certainly uses this story as a spring board for the elements and animation style that will become his trademark. As Miyazaki has always had a flair for fantasy he had for years been captivated by the Earthsea series (a film his son Goro would later attempt to realize for him) but unable to secure the rights. So he made Nausicaä instead and thus his legacy was born.
Now there’s lots to love, appreciate and take away from his films.Above all, environmentalism is a strong plot device and would become staple in future films due to its universal appeal and understanding. In fact we can see elements of this film repeated in Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and even to some degree Pom Poko. But as far as really “saving the planet” this film says it the loudest.
Footnote: The Blu Ray version of Nausicaa came out earlier this month and while the film was already beautifully detailed to begin with, this edition is just gorgoeus. While intentionally less colorful than films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or the other BD releases of Ponyo and Castle in the Sky, this is still an impressively beautiful film which is done a wondeful justice in this revised format.