At this point it’s pretty easy to name drop Hayao Miyazaki with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Movies like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away aren’t just animated masterpieces, but are among some of the greatest films ever made. It’s hard, then, to imagine a time before Studio Ghibli, where Miyazaki had only a single film (the Lupin III movie The Castle of Cagliostro) to his name.
That movie, considered the first of the Studio Ghibli canon, is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. And what’s amazing to see is that even this early in his career all of the Miyazaki hallmarks are here—the fixation on flight, the strong female lead, the dangers of technology, and the importance of harmony with nature.
The film tells the story of Nausicaä, princess of the isolated Wind Tribe, on an earth a thousand years after apocalyptic war has ravaged most of the planet. Poisonous jungles protected by giant, violent bugs have covered most of the planet, forcing the few tribes of humanity left into defensive positions on the outskirts of the planet.
But when an airship carrying a remnant of a weapon from the old world crashes in the valley of the wind the various kingdoms make their move, military forces descend into the peaceful valley and Nausicaä is thrust into the middle of a war that dooms all factions to destruction.
What’s most interesting to me about Nausicaä is the themes of nonviolence and peaceful resolution that are laid out from the outset. Nausicaä has a gift with otherwise ferocious animals, able to calm them and turn them back into the jungles. But when her father is killed in the invasion of a neighboring army, Nausicaä is driven into a rage. A murderous rage that results in several deaths.
Now, murder in movies is always kind of a strange subject, a thing that’s all right if they’re the bad guys. But Nausicaä seems to take it pretty hard and spends most of the rest of the movie actively discouraging fighting among every faction she comes across. It comes to the point where she risks her own safety to prevent violent acts. It’s an interesting rumination on compassionate response in a genre that’s usually full of weightless violence.
What might be obvious at this point is that Nausicaä is a bit darker than much of Miyazaki’s filmography. And to an extent that’s true. The film is certainly a serious movie, with real consequences. But it doesn’t go to the extent of a movie like Princess Mononoke, a movie almost oppressive in its exploration of similar themes.
Much of the darkness instead comes from the way the movie is animated itself. The movie is dark, full of moody shadows and grotesque creatures. Certainly Miyazaki’s beautiful nature and flight scenes are in full effect, but the general color palate is a wasteland of bruise-colored jungle and wasteland. The darker art style reminded me in many ways of Fantastic Planet, a much more abstract animated sci-fi film that explores some similar themes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miyazaki was heavily influenced by Fantastic Planet, especially in the creation of the giant behemoth insects known as Ohma, more force of nature than animal.
That’s not to call Nausicaä an unattractive or inaccessable film. As always, Miyazaki’s movies are pretty easy to approach, and the distant mythology and lack of cultural pinpoints makes it an easier starting point than Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. I would urge anyone who loves movies to seek it out. Even if anime isn’t usually your thing, Nausicaä is worth seeing. I even highly recommend the English dub, as I do most Miyazaki dubs, with great performances from Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman, among others.
I feel almost silly trying to convince people that Nausicaä is awesome. Saying that Miyazaki makes great cinema is like claiming that the world is round or the sky is blue. These truths are self-evident. But just in case you didn’t know, here is a wonder of a film, a movie worth seeing, an epic early entry from one of the world’s best filmmakers.