Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind belongs in the same canon of films as Lawrence of Arabia or The Leopard: epic and sweeping, but never losing sight of their characters or their true conceits. With a movie this ambitious, especially an animated movie, it’s easy to get lost in the scenery. It says something that Nausicaa has characters that upstage most of the action, and a story that lingers long after the images fade.
Nausicaa is the product of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki is rightly regarded as the grand living master of Japanese animation, and based on the total body of work he’s produced so far — which includes Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and many more films — he deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest living directors, period. Nausicaa only drives that point home all the more: until now it remained unseen outside of Japan except through bootlegs and fly-by-night screenings. Absolutely shameful.
Nausicaa opens some millennia after a great catastrophe scorched the earth and destroyed civilization. Pockets of humanity survive here and there, and life has returned for the most part — except in a vast blighted region known as the Sea of Decay, laden with toxic spores and crawling with all manner of monsters. The Valley of the Wind is a small island of safety near the ever-growing borders of the Sea. One of its denizens, the sprightly young Nausicaa, makes periodic ventures into the Sea to retrieve the carapaces of the giant, pillbug-like Ohmu. From them can be fashioned all manner of weapons or tools, and thus equipped the Valley people live as harmoniously as they can with nature.
One night a massive airship from another land comes barreling through the canyon, its cockpit disabled by an infestation of giant maggot-like monsters, and Nausicaa dives in to rescue them. The next day other airships from the same country arrive, this time bristling with weapons and armed men, and the people of the valley find themselves the victims of a variety of gunboat diplomacy: Join up and help to destroy the Sea of Decay once and for all, or be left to die. There are those who remain convinced that attempting to destroy the Sea will only make things worse, but Nausicaa pleads for her people to accept subjugation — at least for now, as a way to avoid further violence. She will only later realize the price of compromising so easily.
Soldiers from a rival, warring nation appear as conquerers: Join us, they say, or die in the Sea of Decay.
The conquerors’ plan is simple: Use a long-slumbering war machine to raze the Sea. Unfortunately, it is also the same breed of machine that destroyed the world to begin with, so long ago, and so Nausicaa and her companions must prevent an even greater disaster. Unbeknownst to everyone, including her closest friends, Nausicaa has been harvesting spores from the Sea of Decay to try and find a way to render them harmless. It isn’t the Sea of Decay that’s the problem, she learns, but the earth itself. Before she can realize any of her work, she’s taken as a hostage and packed in an airship to be sent to the dead center of the Sea.
Before they’re even halfway there, however, the convoy is attacked, and Nausicaa manages to stage an escape through a combination of brio, daring and sheer luck. When she crashes in the middle of the Sea, she’s rescued by Asbel, a young soldier from another land. Both of them are puzzled as to why they don’t need their breathing masks to survive in the middle of the spore-laden Sea. Has the ecosystem been changing without them knowing about it? Wondering about all of that, unfortunately, may be wholly academic, as Asbel’s people are preparing an Ohmu stampede to destroy the resurrected war machine in the valley — and everyone in the Valley to boot.
Epic filmmaking is not just an exercise in visual scope, but breadth of feeling. Nausicaa spans so many moods and covers so much ground it’s almost intimidating. There are grand, visionary sequences — as when Nausicaa soars between the clouds on her glider — quiet moments between friends, political machinations, and even moments of broad physical comedy, as when a gang of heroes commandeer a tank but don’t quite know how to drive it. There is also violence, but it is not the mindless action violence of most movies. Every blow hurts, and there is a truly startling scene when one of Nausicaa’s cohorts takes a sword blow meant for one of her enemies so that he might prove a point.
The broad outlines of the plot unfold from the needs of the characters, not the whim of the screenwriter. Nausicaa is the most dynamic character in the whole of the cast: she accepts nothing as inevitable, and charges in to break the stalemates engendered by others. She does what no one else would do, simply because no one else will do it. The climax has a wounded and exhausted Nausicaa trying to stop a stampede of Ohmu with nothing more than her bare hands and every inch of her will; a lesser movie would have had her engineering some tricky compromise to keep her from having to stick her neck all the way out. The film is every bit as fearless as its heroine.
A common hallmark among great artists is when you can recognize their work unmistakably. No Miyazaki film looks or feels like any other animated production, but more importantly, none of them have the same strength of storytelling, the same moral concerns, and the same particular flights of fancy he has. Many elements in Nausicaa bring to mind the best of his other films. Princess Mononoke, in particular, had much the same thematic algebra — man vs. man, man vs. nature, nature vs. nature — and even the way certain scenes are constructed here are eerie echoes of similar moments from other films. Some people do this and seem to be stuck in a rut; Miyazaki never felt like he was repeating himself, probably because each time he revisited the same ideas he did so as if for the first time.
A common Miyazaki theme (man’s connection with nature) has a specific place in this movie, and Miyazaki finds endless ways to make it concrete and specific. Early in the film Nausicaa encounters a little ferret-like creature, and over the next several scenes establishes a bond with it. Nausicaa puts out her hand, shows she’s not afraid, even allows the animal to bite her to show that she will not attack. The way the two come to share each other’s space reminded me of a similar moment in The Black Stallion, where the boy and the horse develop a mutual trust in one long, unbroken take. That Nausicaa is animated and not live action doesn’t make these scenes any the less compelling to watch; it pays off all the more when we see those climactic scenes with Nausicaa and a river of Ohmu stretching over the horizon.
Miyazaki loves the sheer exhilaration of flight, but doesn't neglect its throat-in-mouth terror either.
It’s funny how I’ve managed to get this far and not once mention the animation. Miyazaki was originally a manga-ka, and to this day draws many of the key cels for his films himself. The artwork seems to draw most strongly not from other anime, but from the style of European comics like Tintin or Moebius’s work for Heavy Metal. Many scenes are workouts for the animators, not only in terms of showing objects in motion (although there’s plenty of that — one of the air battles looks like the genesis for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), but for having characters emote, as when we see nothing of their faces but their eyes over their spore masks.
Most importantly, there isn’t a frame of Nausicaa that doesn’t somehow have Miyazaki’s personality in it. He likes certain images, and works them into his films over and over: anonymous, milling hordes, figures in procession, the joy of flight. As much as I admired Ghost in the Shell 2, for instance, what little humanity there was in it was smothered by the movie’s gorgeous but largely anonymous use of CGI — although, again, maybe in a movie about a highly depersonalized future, that’s simply a good aesthetic decision. Nausicaa is epic in scope but also handmade in feel.
Of all the thing Miyazaki puts into his films, including the images, I admire most how he manages to portray all of his characters sympathetically. The beasts in the forest are simply trying to survive. The humans in the valley are coexisting with nature as best they can. The warriors in their airships are similarly desperate; they do what they do not out of greed or the need to validate themselves through evil, but because they see no other way forward. The movie takes the time to make everyone specific and human, not just mouthpieces for a fixed point of view. A movie like Nausicaa ennobles not only animated films, but filmmaking in general, which is as it should be.