Hayao Miyazaki is legendary. Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated film Akira made serious waves in America, but it has never really risen above cult status. Japanese shows like Sailor Moon, Dragonball and Pokemon won the hearts of a lot of my generation, but have hardly been taken seriously as art. Miyazaki’s oeuvre, on the other hand, represents the one major body of anime that has transcended otakudom to achieve mainstream international success – to the point where Disney owns the North American distribution rights – on the basis of its artistic merits and commercial success. He has achieved a kind of guru status, in spite of his jaundiced and at times contemptuous opinion of anime culture and the lifestyles of those who participate in it. And he is one of those curious things: a man of the left (an ex-Marxist, in fact) whose ideals translate into a kind of traditionalist cultural pessimism that is rarely seen in mainstream entertainment outside of Tolkien.
But let’s turn back the clock to the early 80s, before all of that reputation accumulated. His first film, The Castle of Cagliostro was a success, but it was a success in someone else’s franchise: Monkey Punch’s Lupin III. It did, however, put him on a radar, and led to the creation of his manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind for Animage magazine.
Nausicaa was an instant hit, and by the next year Miyazaki was already put at the helm of a movie adaptation. And it is this which will be the focus of this post, and not the manga, which continued on until 1994.
Nausicaa is a sci-fi epic set in a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Most of the world is covered in the Sea of Decay, a fungus jungle which produces a miasma fatal to humans. Giant insects populate the landscape – particularly the Ohmu, which resemble large potato bugs. The titular Nausicaa is the princess of the similarly titular Valley of the Wind, a small nation whose airflow protects it from the miasma.
The plot kicks into gear when an airship from a nearby empire (Tolkmekia) crashlands, leaving behind what looks like a giant womb. Shortly thereafter, Tolmekian troops led by Princess Kushana occupy the valley. It turns out that the womb, pilfered from the nation of Pejite, contains a Great Warrior, one of the bioweapons that caused the aforementioned apocalypse. When her father is killed during the occupation, Nausicaa is forced into leadership and must work to save both her people and avert another world-ending catastrophe.
Right off the bat, Miyazaki has wisely pared down a lot of the political intrigue, complex plotting and massive cast of characters that made up his manga. There’s only so much that can be covered in two hours, and most of the sacrifices made ensure that the story is always clear, accessible, and moving at a good pace.
The one serious problem has more to do with the state of the source material than Miyazaki’s adaptation as such: by 1983 there wasn’t much Nausicaa to work with, and I doubt that the man had a definite grasp of where he wanted his story to go. As a result, the story has a definite “Episode I” feel, where, although the conflict at hand has been resolved, most of the characters are lacking a complete arc. Only Nausicaa, who undergoes your usual heroes’ journey, feels like the a truly developed character.
But in spite of the rather static nature of the supporting cast, they’re still vividly realized. The armor-clad, imposing Kushana is convincing as the cold, calculating military leader who doesn’t mince words. Officer Kurosawa is a smug, scheming jerk, etc. Only Prince Asbel fails to be particularly memorable, in part because he was also kinda bland in the manga.
The animation, which was done by Topcraft studio, is actually where the film departs from its source material the most. Miyazaki drew the manga mostly in pencil, which gave it a bit of an, uh, sketchy, concept art-ish look which fit its rather surreal setting. But it wouldn’t fit a sci-fi movie which requires a strong sense of realism in order to be compelling. Nausicaa’s animation is bright, crisp, vivid, and indulges in a kind of alien lushness; the sea of decay has a kind of beauty to it, but it’s the sort where you somehow know that that stuff’ll kill you. The only time when the manga’s artstyle emerges is, fittingly, during dream sequences or memories.
The film is also abetted by composer Joe Hisaishi in the first of many collaborations with Miyazaki. Hisaishi’s score features both orchestral and electronic components, which enhances the otherworldly tone. It also, more than any other Hisaishi score I’ve heard, has a strong prog-rock sound to it; a lot of it sounds like it could have been lifted from one of King Crimson’s spacier albums. As a prog rock fan, this is a plus for me, although I suppose your mileage could vary.
The net total of all this is a fine movie. Its narrative never reaches the heights that the manga does, but still a minor miracle compared to most other 80s sci-fi junk. Nausicaa makes for a solid sophomore effort, with Miyazaki’s aesthetic toolbox in place and ready to be put to greater use.
Did you know that in 1985, Nausicaa received a heavily edited American release under the title, Warriors of the Wind? Although I’ve never seen this cut, the box art is telling:
When Disney bought the rights to his work, Miyazaki made them agree to no edits as part of the conditions, in order to prevent this from ever happening again.