Canon Entry - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind now, it seems to be a story that has been told many times. Big budget pictures with environmentalist themes are a favorite for directors like James Cameron (Avatar). Movies with strong, capable heroines are getting slowly more popular (Moana, also with environmentalist themes). Yet when this movie was first released in North America, it was butchered beyond recognition. It was retitled Warriors of the Wind, presumably to appeal to young boys (the same logic for calling a Rapunzel movie Tangled), and its promotional art featured three male characters that weren’t even in the movie. They also cut large parts of the story, losing the complexity of the “villains” (the ohmu) since they didn’t think American children could handle a more involved story. Even Nausicaa’s name couldn’t be left well enough alone as it was changed to Princess Zandra. Director Hayao Miyazaki was so dissatisfied with the end result that he adopted a strict “no cuts” policy for future Studio Ghibli releases. Concerning Princess Mononoke, he famously sent a katana to Harvey Weinstein, sex criminal and mangler of many movies, to further impress his message.
All of this goes to show how far ahead of his time MIyazaki was and has been for his career. Nausicaa takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the vegetation has been poisoned in a massive area called the Toxic Jungle, which many people have grown to fear. Nausicaa is the princess of the Valley of the Wind who regularly ventures into the Forest because of her love of nature. The plot kicks into high gear when the kingdom of Tolmekia invades the Valley of the Wind. Her father is murdered, and she is left in charge of the valley. She must use her wits and strength to prevent war and foster a deeper understanding of nature and the Ohmu (giant insect-like creatures) to prevent the complete destruction of the whole world.
I struggle to write about animators because I do not know much about the medium. Miyazaki’s works are always beautiful and expansive and many of his creations are so indelible they transcend language and culture (think Totoro). Yet there are many animation directors who also create beautiful, expansive worlds and have even crazier and more vivid styles than Miyazaki just in Japan. Even Nausicaa isn’t necessarily the best example of Miyazaki’s films since it was his first original feature. The animation is not as fluid as his later features would be. You can especially tell how relatively primitive the animation was if you observe just the human characters. They don’t have as much definition as, for example, the Ohmu. His human animation would get better. Miyazaki’s most impressive accomplishment in Spirited Away may have been Chihiro, perhaps the most realistic representation of a prepubescent girl I have ever seen in a movie, including live action.
Miyazaki’s true strong suit, I think, is his storytelling ability and his writing. Consider the beginning scene where Nausicaa in on her glider and scavenges a part of an Ohmu exoskeleton. She uses gunpowder to sprinkle around the Ohmu’s eye casing and light it so that the casing will separate. By simply showing her in action, we learn so much about her personality, her resourcefulness, without any clunky exposition. Animation, anime especially, is not ideal for verbal exposition. Many Japanese animators realize this, which is why we see the often-parodied trope of characters opening and closing their mouths in an unrealistic simulation of speech.
In terms of his characters, Miyazaki clearly has some of the best female characters ever. There has been much recent hubbub about female heroines such as Wonder Woman, Moana, etc. Miyazaki was writing female characters with lots of agency and strength from his very first feature. They’re also allowed to be complex yet morally questionable, unlike many of the strong, female characters lauded today. Think Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, a character who has very good reasons for believing that she is absolutely in the right, even though her actions end up threatening the lives of many living creatures. It is still extremely rare to find a complex, relatable female villain in Western movies, but they are relatively common in Miyazaki’s works.
Even Nausicaa, who may seem to fall into the trap of the magical girl trope - too good to be true and her goodness inspires people to be better - is much better served by Miyazaki than other similar characters by other filmmakers. She is definitely not perfect. Her first instinct when her father is murdered in front of her eyes is to kill the perpetrators. Her obsession with preserving nature and the Ohmu seems ludicrous, even insane, considering how much real damage the creatures do and how she is being irresponsible for putting so much faith in a seemingly unthinking, unreasonable force. Even her tendency towards self-sacrifice borders on suicidal, even though it is also her greatest strength and perhaps her most awe-inspiring trait. I would venture to say that she is Miyazaki’s best character since she is so awesome yet so deeply human.
There are many animated movies that prove that animation is a perfectly good, perhaps the ideal medium for telling big, expansive stories of great complexity with thought-provoking ideas. Nausicaa can easily work as a thrilling children’s movie, albeit a fairly intense and violent one, for any gender. Yet it can also work as a modern myth that seriously considers humankind’s place in nature and how twisted and complex our relationship with it is. It does it way better (and with a fraction as a budget) as Avatar, and MIyazaki’s philosophy comes through in his animation style and the types of stories he chooses in all of his movies, and it never seems disingenuous.