Taking a Dive into the Deep End: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

In All, Anime, Movies by David

This time I will be looking at Miyazaki’s second film as a director, but the first using his own original idea: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Nausicaä is based on a manga of the same name that was written by Miyazaki as well. Miyazaki started writing the manga in 1982, and actually kept writing it in between shooting other Studio Ghibli films until 1994. The movie, however, was released fairly early into the manga’s run in 1984. Its road to be released in America was fairly bumpy. A dubbed version known as Warriors of the Wind was released in the 1980s in theatres, on HBO, and on VHS. This version of the film is extremely controversial, as it was heavily edited to make it more child-oriented. The voice actors were not told the plotline to the movie, and much of its actual meaning and story were lost. This disaster prompted Miyazaki to ask fans to basically pretend this film never existed and caused Studio Ghibli to adopt a “no-edits” policy for future foreign releases to ensure nothing like Warriors of the Wind could ever happen again. It wasn’t until 2005 that a version was re-released in America, re-dubbed and uncut.

Sword cut

What is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind about? Well, it is an environmental film that is a cautionary tale but has a hopeful message. It follows Nausicaä, the daughter of the mayor of the Valley of the Wind, who lives in a post apocalyptic world that has been destroyed be humans. Pollution has caused the creation of Toxic Jungles, which are inhibited by various insects including the Ohmu (giant, mutated, fiddler crab-like insects). Nausicaä and her village live by a Toxic Jungle, but have found a way to do so out of harm’s way. Nausicaä’s peaceful life is interrupted, when she is thrust into a conflict between two warring nations: Tolmekia and Pejite. These two nations are trying to reclaim the planet for humans, but disagree on the best way to do so, as the Tolmekians wish to unleash a newly discovered Giant Warrior (one of a race of ancient beings that once destroyed much of the world) on the Toxic Jungles, in order to eradicate the insects and the poisons the jungles contain. Nausicaä must find a way to stop the two nations not only in order to protect her home, but also to protect the insect inhabitants, as the seemingly destructive Toxic Jungles may also hold a key to the planet’s salvation. All of this leads to a thrilling adventure with mostly nuanced characters, emotionally resonate themes and images, and an epic conclusion.

So how does Nausicaä compare with The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)? The answer is quite well and in quite interesting ways. First off, the differences in animation were enlightening. While The Castle of Cagliostro clearly had a larger budget than Nausicaä, Nausicaä benefits from a few things. First, animation seems to have improved over the five years that passed between the makings of each film. Character animation is smoother, making the action scenes work quite well in Nausicaä. Backgrounds seem to be able to be integrated better, so there are less static background images with characters walking across them. Still these things are slight improvements and can’t really bridge the gap between the two budgets. What really marks the difference in the animation is that Miyazaki adds much more directorial flourish to his animation. It’s clear he wanted to really show off stylistically in this film, which gives it a visual flair that is astounding to behold.

Miyazaki uses a different look for the many different factions in his film. The Tolmekian army’s ships have a rougher look that makes them stand out against the natural backgrounds. This allows for a perfect visual representation to be shown of how the airships are an unnatural thing in this world. The gray, blue, and even green mix of metal on the ships offer a coldness that perfectly reflects the Tolmekian people. This is especially interesting when comparing these ships to the Nausicaä’s glider and the Valley of the Wind’s gunship, which stick out far less in comparison to the natural world than the Tolmekian ships do. They are smoother, and seem to reflect how much more in harmony with the world Nausicaä and the people of the Valley of the Wind are with nature than the Tolmekian’s due.  The insects meanwhile especially the Ohmu are a weird mix of the natural and unnatural parts of their animation seem in harmony (such as the eyes or tentacles of the Ohmu) with their surroundings, but other parts are more like the cold, unnaturalness of the Tolmekian ships (such as the shell of the Ohmu). This helps create a perfect visual representation of what they Ohmu are fantastical creatures in a natural world that his gone wild. This dual visual nature of the Ohmu also reflects their role in the film: both villains and saviors. They represent a potential danger to humanity, but also provide much for the people in the Valley and the Wind, and more important are important to the revitalization of the dying world as a whole.

 

Nothing though is as visually stimulating as the stylistic choices that Miyazaki made with his hybridized flashback and dream sequence in which we see a young Nausicaä playing in a gold field. The sun shines upon her. Suddenly, her father and entourage arrive to come get her, and then head towards a tree. Nausicaä panics and rushes towards the tree screaming for them to show mercy. The tree is revealed to hold a baby Ohmu, which Nausicaä pleads, is her friend. Her father and her advisors are convinced that she has been brainwashed by the bug, so her father takes the insect away presumably to kill it and leaving a young Nausicaä devastated and balling. This sequence has a colored sketch-type quality combined with the character designs Miyazaki had done for the film. The backgrounds take on an unfinished impressionistic look that is simply stunning. Everything takes on a goldish hue as the sun shines done on the scene. This does a brilliant job of first helping things seem bright and cheerful like a nice sunny day, but then becoming much more ominous as Nausicaä’s father takes the Ohmu baby away under the harsh and unforgiving sun that mirrors the similar nature of her father.

Furthermore, only Nausicaä’s and her mother’s faces can be seen clearly in the flashback. Her father and his entourage faces are clouded in shadows that make them seem less human and monstrous. This feeling of them being monsters is amplified when her father reaches for the Ohmu baby, and the scene shows many hands reaching from darkness trying to grab the Ohmu as her father’s humanity is completely stripped away. Throughout this scene a young girl is heard singing a playful lullaby as the score to this scene. This too serves a duel purpose as early in the scene it plays as light and playful, but as it continues unabated even as the scene grows darker and darker in tone the music becomes very unsettling and terrifying. All of this forms a scene that on levels of sound, visuals, dialogue, and character action combines into haunting filmmaking that shows the loss of childhood innocence and the cruelty of the world that Nausicaä lives in (and we could live in). All of this made it by far my favorite part of the film.

As with The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä is full of lush backgrounds, but Nausicaä has an interesting mix of impressionistic, stationary collages, and vivid nature shots, whereas The Castle of Cagliostro used much clearer and traditional images that lacked the stylistic flair of Nausicaä. The differences in the budgets between the two films probably accounted for some of this, but much of it is just that Miyazaki is able to put so much more of a personal stamp onto Nausicaä than he was able with a property that already existed and was as famous as Lupin III was and still as. One scene that is especially impressive is Nausicaä and Asbel walking through the remains of Pejite and seeing them walking through a stationary background and foreground of dead Ohmu’s and other insects, wreckages of Tolmekian war machines, and the destroyed city of Pejite. The images are expertly designed and contrast with the moving smoke and firefly-like lights. This scene takes perfect advantage of the limitations of the time with background animation and creates perfect images of destruction and sorrow.

Miyazaki’s character development is, for the most part, rather well done for numerous reasons. First, he does a good job of portraying three distinct groups: the people that live in the Valley of The Wind, the Tolmekians, and those from Pejite. Each has their own distinct motivations and are differentiated in interesting ways. The Tolmekians are completely pro-human and only concern themselves with doing whatever it takes to reclaim the planet for the human race. Admittedly, their single-mindedness, especially that of their leader, Kushana, is a bit troublesome and lacks a certain depth, but they are still very well defined. The people of Pejite are an interesting contrast, because they have many of the same beliefs as the Tolmekians, but there are lines they are just not willing to cross in order to accomplish their goals. Namely they are not willing to awaken the Giant Warrior. Still, they are quite ruthless as they willingly sacrifice their town to stop the Tolmekians, and they kidnap a baby Ohmu in order to draw an angry Ohmu herd to attack the remaining Tolmekian soldiers. Miyazaki’s ability to make the Tolmekians and the people of Pejite two sides of the same coin, but with key differences, is quite impressive.

Then there are the people in the Valley of the Wind. Unlike the other groups, they strive to find more balance with the Toxic Jungle than the other nations. They live off the land and work not to disrupt or damage nature any more than it has already been damaged. Now, they are not in perfect harmony with nature, as they are still wary of the Ohmu and various insects, and as the flashback shows, many are like Nausicaä’s father: unable to believe that the insects and humans can co-exist. Still, they do not have a malicious attitude towards the insects. Instead, they do what they can to use anything the insects will give them, such as the Ohmu shell that Nausicaä finds at the beginning of the film. Nausicaä meanwhile stands apart from everyone, as she knows that the Toxic Jungle is helping to purify the planet of all the damage that humans have done to it, and she seeks to find harmony between humans and nature so that the world can recover to its former beautiful glory. Miyazaki does a fantastic job of developing her into a truly heroic and strong character, whose way of thinking shapes the story and ultimately the world around her.

Miyazaki’s true masterstroke, however, is his work with the character Kurotowa. Kurotowa is introduced under quite nefarious circumstances, as he is part of the group of soldiers that murder Nausicaä’s father. He’s the only one to survive Nausicaä’s attacks of revenge, and he comes off as arrogant, cowardly, and rather evil. As the film progresses, however, so too does his character. He comes off as a thoughtful man that, while not exactly brave, is willing to fight, even in dire circumstances. When Kushana is reported missing, he muses about fortune smiling on him and giving him a chance to shine in his missions. During this time, many would have made Kurotowa into the true villain of the story, but Miyazaki does the opposite. Kurotowa makes decisions that are geared towards keeping his soldiers and the people of the Valley of the Wind alive. Then, when Kushana returns, instead of mounting a coup or harboring resentment, he humorously resigns himself to his fate as a follower. These character moments really help the audience grow to know his character and actually rejoice at his ultimate survival, which seems impossible considering the place the character starts from. By finding a way to turn one of his villains into a sympathetic and strangely charming character, Miyazaki really adds nuance to his story that helps elevate the film to a much higher level.

Nausicaä marks the first appearance of a Miyazaki staple: the ending credits rolling over a montage of images that serve to provide various degrees of closure to his films. Just as in The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä uses a montage bereft of dialogue in order to silently convey his final ideas through well-constructed images. In Nausicaä’s case, these final images are used to show how Nausicaä’s actions have sparked a change in the world and people around her. The Ohmu return back to the Toxic Jungle. The Tolmekians abandon their quest to make the Valley of the Wind a part of their kingdom and return home. The remaining people of Pejite stay in the Valley of the Wind and seek a new way of life. Life goes back to normal: villagers work, children play, and peace has been restored. The film ends with a hopeful shot of Nausicaä’s discarded helmet lying by a sapling, untainted by the Toxic Jungle, suggesting that the purification of the planet is slowly progressing, and the world could really return to the way it was, but this time with humans prepared to live far more harmoniously within it.

An unexpected treat of watching Nausicaä was the score that accompanied it. Not that it was fantastic (it was, but that is not surprising), but just how emotionally riveting it was. The lullaby in the film is the real stand out, but the film’s mix of happy and melancholy music just always found the right balance and worked so well with the images the score played over. It also gave me the distinct nostalgic feeling of playing an epic video game. Hironobu Sakaguchi has long said that Nausicaä helped influence and inspire the Final Fantasy series, even saying that Chocobos were based on the horseclaws in the film, but I found the movie more reminiscent of the Chrono series. The themes, the world, the similarities in looks between the Ohmu and Lavos, and most of all the similar styles of music (especially in the beginning of Nausicaä) really made Nausicaä feel like a precursor to the Chrono series. The epicness of the world in Nausicaä made it feel like you were watching a JRPG and movie all in one.

Overall, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a great thrill ride that manages to show a growth in Miyazaki’s skills as a director and writer even after his stellar debut with The Castle of Cagliostro. Still, this growth is tempered by some problematic character and story elements that may have come from Miyazaki’s basing it off of his (at the time) still unfinished manga. The portrayal of the Tolmekians, especially Kushana (who never seems to really grow as a character until literally the ending credits), is problematic, and the Giant Warrior just never seems to fit well with the rest of the story. All of this cost the film a bit, so I would give this film 3.5 out of 4 stars just like I did for The Castle of Cagliostro, though I would acknowledge that 1) Nausicaä is a better and more ambitious movie, and 2) two it is closer to being a 4 star than a 3.5 star movie (maybe like a 3.75?).

So that’s it for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. At some point, I might come back to this film in order to talk a bit about how the movie compares to the manga. Until whatever is next though, may the wind take you where you want to go!

David Robertson