Studio Ghibli Part 3: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Two years after the release of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki-san began his first and so far only manga: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. By 1984, he had finished the first two volumes and wrote a script for a feature length anime based on these volumes. The full story of the manga was completed in 1992, so – needless to say – the film is very much an abridged version of a longer work. That is not to say that the film is not complete unto itself.

nausicaa2coverAfter having completed his script, Miyazaki-san took the directing reins himself and the rest, as they say, is history. For the first time the master was able to write a story from scratch with his own characters and one has to marvel at how his directing abilities had blossomed in the four years that had passed since his last directorial venture. (In the meantime, he had, together with Isao Takahata, tried his luck in the US through the co-production of a film called Little Nemo. However, the Japanese delegation pretty much abandoned ship because of the differences between the two countries in how to produce a movie – and not least, what the movie should actually be about).

This is the first film that really has the full “Miyazaki-touch”. It’s both an ecological fable, an anti-war film and a grand adventure story. It features a complicated heroine, Nausicaa, who is no damsel in distress, to put it mildly. More than that, the villain of the piece is hardly a villain at all, not in the one dimensional way, at least. She as well is female, and one has to admire Miyazaki-san’s belief that the audience of a predominantly male genre will accept a story in which both the protagonists (and antagonists?) are female – and as far from bimbos as one can possibly get. While the feminism of Miyazaki-san’s stories stem in part from a much stronger tradition in Japan of granting females roles as strong – and often headstrong – characters, I think that his consistent use of female protagonists in his films also points to his societal concerns.

Also, I suspect that he wishes to erase the sometimes artificial borders that the Japanese put up between different forms of manga/anime. Shonen, for example, is supposed to be manga stories that appeal to the typical young boy, with space crafts and robots; s/f-motifs and general adventure stories. Shojo is meant for girls and young women, featuring romance stories, female super heroines or depictions of girls working together (such a group is called sentai, with military connotations). Bishojo are comics that feature pretty single girls, as far as I can understand, while seinen is meant for boys or young men too old to read the shonen. I could go on, but you get the point.

nausicaa-on-a-hillThus, a part of Miyazaki-san’s project seems to be to move past the separation of comics – or films – meant for only boys or only girls, but also to move past the barriers around what these films can depict. While this can initially seem strange for a westerner, as we don’t have these barriers as pronounced in our culture, I’ll venture that they still exist, we only haven’t been smart or calculated enough to put names to them. Well, that is not entirely true. The media has long since coined terms like “chick-flicks” and most recently, in desperation I suppose, “Dick-Flicks”; about stories of platonic male romances. This, though, has more to do with marketing and the decline of the Western civilization, and is thus slightly too wide a topic to cover in this post.

Of course, the problem with western films is that they are pretty much all shonen or shojo, with the majority by far being the former. (Although, as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, for every 300 or The Dark Knight, we now increasingly seem to have a Sex and the City and Confessions of a Shopaholic. The problem with this has less to do with making genre films predominantly for only one sex, but the quality of the product and the depiction of women in the “women‘s films“).

But I digress. Miyazaki-san consistently uses young girls as his protagonists, and intermittently women as the antagonists. As a man, I’ve never cared one way or the other while watching the films, meaning I’ve never had any problems identifying with the plight of the characters, their desires or joy of life, their ways of acting in the world they inhabit. And, while this may put into question my manhood, I think that’s a part of the reason he has done so. (Not to put my manhood into question, but to create stories that go beyond sexually grounded consumerist definitions).

He is showing us by example of his stories that separations between the sexes, as well as between groups of people, are artificial and easily overcome by all that we have in common. The real enemy is lack of imagination and what causes said lack. Work is such an antagonist, if work is not heartfelt, if it is not based on something one enjoys. Certainly, the capitalist system is questioned, both as an alienating force which removes us from a sense of ourselves, but also as a downright destructive force that is eating away at the ground beneath our feet; our connection to the earth, and thus to where we come from. Often the steps to adulthood is seen as a crisis for his characters, and his films celebrate a more natural state in us, something that made us more human before we became human in society’s definition. Innocence, another word for nature, is grieved with its passing, not with fey sentimentalism, but by showing us the consequences of a world too grown up to see whence it grew.

frederick-leighton-nausicaaI’ll try to be more concrete, and I’ll begin by returning to the film at hand. Miyazaki-san has surely taken the name Nausicaa from the character in The Odyssey. A young girl, wiser than her father, introduces Odysseus (Ulysses to some of you) into her society through the help of her mother. While she clearly has love for Odysseus, the relationship is never made sexual. Also, Miyazaki-san mentioned in an essay that he was inspired by the “Princess Who Loved Insects“. This is a Japanese story that takes place in the Heian period. The story revolves around a young princess who prefers to study insects and other creatures rather than finding herself a husband. In the essay he very much hints that his Nausicaa is an amalgamation of the two.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place some 1000 years from now. Large parts of the Earth is uninhabitable, as the land has been made toxic by “the sea of decay”. What we see of the human world is mostly primitive, with different states having access to different kinds of technology – of differing sophistication. The states seem to be ruled after a monarchical/ feudal model. We don’t know how the world came to be this way.

We first encounter the young heroine as she is out in the wilderness, exploring the “sea of decay”, collecting samples and traversing the overgrown remains of some former civilization, now almost undistinguishable from the seemingly chemically ravaged nature. Upon returning on her “glider”, a flying apparatus that she controls to perfection, she comes across an “Ohmu”, which we learn is one of the more intelligent creatures to have evolved from the wastelands. It is very fast when it wants to and is armoured and looks like a gigantic caterpillar. Nausicaa seems to have a knack for communicating with the Ohmu.

nausicaa25zcThe film is actually very plot-heavy, so I’ll limit myself to some introductory remarks. Back home in her village, or “The Valley of the Wind” of the title, we see her at work, experimenting with growing plants picked in the contaminated areas. Her findings lead her to believe that only the top soil of the wastelands is contaminated, and that by letting the insects (nature) do their work, the world can again be inhabitable. While at heart a pacifist, she is also a warrior princess and when her father is killed by the invading Tolmekians, she goes on a rampage and kills a large number of the enemy before being overtaken. This dichotomy in her character lifts her above clichéd and Disneyfied portrayals of young females. (Although Mulan is perhaps an exception from the Disney norm of the last 40 years).

The leader of the Tolmekians turns out to be a woman, Princess Kushana, who is like a dark grown up twin, or a version of someone Nausicaa could turn out to be if she didn’t have her love for nature to ground her. It turns out that the Tolmekians are there to secure a weapon of mass destruction that ended up in the valley by accident, namely the embryo of an ancient giant warrior. Their plan is to grow the embryo into full size and use it to destroy the sea of decay. Thus, two perspectives arise; that of Nausicaa, who wants to give nature a chance to fix itself if humanity leaves it well enough alone, and Kushana, who wants to fight fire with fire, so to say, to impose her own will on nature under the guise of wanting to restore it. Nausicaa’s approach is accepting, penitent and almost Buddhist in its non-confrontational way. Kushana’s way out of the human-made disaster is very human in its belief that humanity can restore what it has destroyed, the irony being that it must do so through further destruction.

nausicaa3In a sense, both of the characters do what they believe is best, not necessarily for themselves, but for humanity. As a consequence, it is hard to view Kushana as a villain, and she is certainly not a one-note bad guy. Both of them want to see nature restored, but they differ in their view of what place humanity should have in the restoration as well as in nature itself.

The ecological theme of the film is just one aspect of it, but it is the one that informs all the other elements that the film entails. Narrative doubles such as war and pacifism, love and duty, religion and myth are all given attention, but are very much connected to – and perhaps subservient to – the overriding views on Nature. An example is Miyazaki-san’s handling of Nausicaa as a messianic figure. While she certainly has elements of the christian and redeeming Christ, it is treated here more like a fulfilment of a mythical prophecy. Through Nausicaa’s bond with the Ohmu and the rest of the entomology of the “sea of decay“, she gets a kind of vision of what the earth itself needs. When she sacrifices herself, it is not to save humanity, but in service of a nature that is complex, in that it is partly already contaminated – much like the church’s view of humanity itself, one might interject – and seen as at least as important as the people populating Earth. (By the way, I am not giving away the ending here!)

nausicaa2There are so many things I could say about the film, but I fear it would ruin the appreciation for the first time viewer, so I’ll stop myself here. A danger of offering interpretations of films, is that it will make them seem more clear cut and boring than they are. Let me assure you, that this film is anything but boring. Even if you don’t care an iota or an inch or at all about the above, it is perfectly possible to view the film for its imagery, the unbridled joy of soaring above the fields on quiet wings, or for the adventure of it all – a princess defending her people in times of war – or its high quality animation; in short, for telling a better story than you are likely to see this or pretty much any year.

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