Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ) is the first film officially recognized as a Ghibli production, despite the fact that the film was created before the official existence of the Studio itself. Instead, a small studio called TopCraft was brought under Miyazaki’s supervision for the project. After the success of the film, Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki and fellow director Isao Takahata formed a new company called Studio Ghibli, bringing over much of the talent from TopCraft as employees. Joe Hisaishi also began his fruitful partnership with Miyazaki in this film, a collaboration which has now hit 25 years. For all intents and purposes, Nausicaa is where the Ghibli canon begins, and the familiar Totoro logo feels right at home at the start.
The story of Nausicaa is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a terrible event of the past destroyed much of the civilization that had existed. All that exist now are isolated pockets and settlements scattered around the bleak landscape, separated by a vast, dangerous and toxic environment referred to as the Toxic Jungle or Sea of Decay. Nausicaa comes from a small and peaceful village which is protected from the toxic fumes of the forests. When an airship from a state called Tolmekia crashes near the village, Nausicaa and the townfolk rush to its aid, but discover that the ship belongs to one of the more powerful states in the region, and that it carries a large weapon intended for war. The village is soon invaded by members of this state, who wish to use the weapon to destroy the Toxic Jungle as well as opposing states.
Nausicaa is an exemplary Miyazaki heroine: confident, intelligent, complex. At first glance, Nausicaa may seem monotonously pacifistic and good-natured, but Miyazaki inserts several scenes which build her into a realistic and sophisticated person . For example, early in the film, when the village is attacked by the invading state, Nausicaa’s father is murdered in cold-blood. Nausicaa’s rage and the sudden violence which erupts from it is so unexpected and divergent from her portrayal beforehand that the effects of that scene still linger in my mind. Although Nausicaa is not among my favourite Ghibli films, the character herself is without a doubt one of the greatest that Miyazaki has ever envisioned.
There are some characters who are not portrayed with as much depth, however. The wise woman of the village for example, or Kurotawa – the general of the Tolmekian leader – aren’t necessarily weak characters, but they are very familiar archetypes. I found the wise woman, for example, to be more caricature-like than her equivalent character in Mononoke-hime. Comparisons with Mononoke-hime are inevitable as the two have a very strong man vs. nature undercurrent, and share many similarities in plot. Take an early scene in Nausicaa, where she calms an enraged Ohmu (giant insects which inhabit the Toxic Jungle) – it mirrors the scene which opens Mononoke-hime, where Ashitaka must defend the village from a demonic boar. The leader of the Tolmekian invasion also mirrors Lady Eboshi, the complex “villain” of Mononoke-hime.
When we make such a comparison directly, we can see where Miyazaki improved in terms of storytelling. The early exposition in Nausicaa, for example, feels a bit clunky and obvious, with Nausicaa making her way through the Sea of Decay, conveniently commenting to herself on various things around her, for the audience to hear. It is an approach that I don’t think the older Miyazaki would have used. Action sequences felt a bit too conventional at times, and the ending is a bit sudden and unsatisfying considering all that has built up before it. On that note, however, it should be said that the film is an abbreviated version of a much larger story written by Miyazaki over the span of 12 years (taking occasional breaks to make films) in manga form. The manga has been called one of the greatest epics written in the medium, and while I am still in the process of finishing it, it is even more sophisticated and satisfying than the anime and apparently has a very thought-provoking ending.
Nausicaa is now a 25 year old film, and the technical details obviously must be evaluated in a relative manner. The animation and artwork is imaginative and enthralling, but also visibly dated compared to Miyazaki’s newer work. This is to be expected considering not only the technology involved, but also the size and experience of the staff. What puzzles me a bit more is the music, which has very uneven quality. Some of Hisaishi’s compositions, such as the main theme, while being fairly simple musically speaking – as Hisaishi’s early work tends to be, are nevertheless very fitting and memorable. However, at certain points the score descends into more cliched synthy music common to early anime. These pieces feel like temp tracks pasted onto the scenes in comparison to some of the better music in the film which, while unpolished, is always creative and memorable. The voice acting is also not uniformly excellent, but the strength of the performance of Nausicaa by Sumi Shimamoto is enough for me to give a clear thumbs up. The actress manages to communicate Nausicaa’s sophisticated character so well. She was also the voice of Kyoko from Maison Ikkoku, so maybe I have some unintentional bias here.
Returning to our comparison with Mononoke-hime, I can see how that film was able to deliver a similar message that was more refined and subtly incorporated into the story as a whole. Regardless, Nausicaa is still a very moving and effective film. I don’t know much about the anime climate of those days, but it would surprise me if Nausicaa was not something so fresh and new as to affect the industry creatively in the decades which followed. Miyazaki’s directorial skills are still a work-in-progress, but we can already see many of the traits which would define him later on. I said before, Nausicaa isn’t one of my favourites from the studio and is one of the less polished Ghibli films, but its obvious importance in the history of Ghibli, its fascinating world and story, and the character of Nausicaa herself make it a high recommendation nonetheless.
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