Miyazaki Retrospective: “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”

And after some break, the retrospective is back! There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is that I had spent a ton of time writing a highly researched and detailed review and history of “Nausicaa”…which got deleted when I clicked on “Publish”, my internet apparently having died. This sapped my enthusiasm for awhile, but I’m ready to give it another go.

I guess it’s just as well. The original article was probably more of a history lesson than a review, which is interesting in its own right but really isn’t what the retrospective was supposed to be about. That said, “Nausicaa” was such an influential film that the background needs to at least be touched on briefly.

At the time “Nausicaa” was created there was no Studio Ghibli, and officially “Nausicaa” is not a Studio Ghibli film. “Nausicaa” was essentially an experiment to see if creating a new studio under the leadership of Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, his producer, was a viable idea. Miyazaki himself was already fairly well known at the time. He only had one movie under his belt, true, and it didn’t do very well (“The Castle of Cagliostro” has since been remembered as a minor classic itself, and I intend to get to it next), but he had a lot of experience directing in several different anime shows. So he wasn’t exactly an unknown commodity.

Nevertheless a new studio – especially a studio that aspired to the consistently high quality seen in a Studio Ghibli film – is no small thing to bring about. So “Nausicaa” was created to convince people that it would be a good idea. And, thankfully for fans of anime, “Nausicaa” was a smash hit and almost immediately declared a classic, and has since been retroactively folded into the Studio Ghibli canon.

Right. A very brief history. So how does “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” stack up today?

Pretty well.

“Nausicaa” is not one of Miyazaki’s best films. It is a bold, creative, ambitious, beautifully drawn work of art with a complex story, entertaining characters, and fascinating ideas…but it is not one of Miyazaki’s best films.

The big problem with “Nausicaa” really isn’t “Nausicaa’s” fault. It’s that Miyazaki looked at “Nausicaa” again, didn’t like what he saw, and then decided to make a better version. That better version is “Princess Mononoke”, a movie that is a serious contender for greatest animated movie of all time and one of the greatest epic films ever made. And in comparison, it becomes more and more clear where “Nausicaa” fell short.

Though honestly, it’s hard to even say it “fell short” of anything. More like, what it did worked pretty well, and what “Mononoke” did worked even better.

In “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, the pro-environmental message is straightforward and heavy-handed: Humans who destroy the environment are bad. Humans polluted the earth and are terrible. There’s no subtlety.

Is this actually an issue with the movie? Well…not really? It gives us a clear hero and villain, and honestly, who can argue with “Don’t turn the earth into a toxic wasteland”?

But THEN we look at Mononoke, and how that town that’s supposedly destroying the environment is barely surviving in the middle of the wilderness, made up of outcasts who have banded together to form a struggling community, fighting against forest gods who are no saints themselves and who kill hunters, who need to find a way to get food for their wives and children…

…And all of a sudden “Nausicaa’s” view of the world looks terribly simplistic in comparison.

Similarly, the main villain in “Nausicaa” is mustache-twirlingly evil. Miyazaki gives her just enough of an argument not to make her a cardboard cutout, and there are some light attempts to justify her actions, but the things she does to the people of Nausicaa’s valley make her completely unsympathetic. Contrast her with Lady Eboshi, one of Miyazaki’s best characters, a complex and nuanced portrayal of a strong, compassionate, but icily cold-blooded and ruthless leader, willing to destroy whoever gets in her way and do terrible things in order to accomplish her goals. Her sympathetic portrayal contrasts strongly with the villain of “Nausicaa” (it doesn’t hurt that Lady Eboshi gets some of the best lines of any Miyazaki film – “I’m getting tired of hearing about that arm of yours. I think it’s time I cut it off!”).

This extends further, also encompassing Miyazaki’s attitude towards war and weaponry. Basically, any time “Nausicaa” and “Mononoke” attempt to tackle the same or similar themes, topics, or characters, “Nausicaa” does very well and “Mononoke” does outstanding. This makes “Nausicaa” look something like a testing ground for ideas that were utilized more effectively in “Mononoke”.

Of course, this is highly unfair to the film, which – as I stated – was very good in its own right. It does mean, though, that the most interesting parts of the film are where it diverges most clearly from “Mononoke”: The world-building and the character of Nausicaa herself. Miyazaki’s view of earth and the Valley of the Wind is a fascinating one, and there is a mid-film twist about the purpose of the poison forest that is genuinely surprising. It’s hard to really explain what makes it so fascinating without actually seeing it, of course:

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

Image result for nausicaa poison forest

“Princess Mononoke” has some amazing imagery, but nothing as fascinating and engrossing as the poison forests of “Nausicaa”.

Nausicaa herself is an enchanting character, at once brave, active, and very, very feminine. I thought it a misstep early on in the film when Nausicaa went toe to toe with the male soldiers attacking her – she is clearly not a very large or strong woman – and it’s something Miyazaki really never did again (Lady Eboshi and San from “Mononoke” have something different going on entirely), either in the movie or in his overall body of work. Outside of that, though, Nausicaa’s strength is of a distinctly feminine bent; she can charm animals with a smile and touch, her kindness wins her the love and devotion of her people, and she is utterly fearless in the face of danger, throwing herself in front of gunfire multiple times. She ultimately ends up saving the day not through traditional male-oriented action heroics but by asking for forgiveness and mercy on behalf of her people. Nausicaa is one of Miyazaki’s most fun and likable characters, and as great as some of the characters in “Mononoke” our protagonist is certainly not as compelling.

So, is “Nausicaa” a great movie? Yes, it is. Is “Nausicaa” a classic? Yes, it is.

Is “Nausicaa” one of Miyazaki’s best films?

No it’s not.

And that’s amazing.

  • Lorenzo Fossi

    One of my favourite things of Nausicaa are the Giant Warriors or God Warriors. Synthetic but alive, circuits beating like hearts, a breath of noxious industrial gases, a gleam of “poisonous light” and a conscious mind beneath it all. This one simple idea of something “mechanical” but so advanced as to behave as something that evolved naturaly made a very strong impression on 13 years Old me watching the movie for the first time. Myazaki is a genius because he managed to say so much about the world before while barely saying a word about it, just by showing us It’s final weapon.

  • Mrs. Wright

    I have to disagree with you… strongly. Not only is Nausicaa without question Miyazaki’s best film, it is one of the best films ever made…by anyone.

    Miyazaki has made some spectacular fillms…but none of the others have the depth and scope and beauty of Nausicaa. Or such intelligence and resourceful main character. Nausicaa, who flies into machine guns, is braver and more daring than any other heroine. She is a leader. She is resourceful, and she doesn’t wait for thing to happen to her…as many Miyazaki characters do.

    That being said…while Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind has a plot that makes sense, the much maligned Warriors of the Wind…the early American release… has the best dialogue.

    “It’s never too soon to rule the world!”

    • Bellomy

      I see a lot that’s very straightforward here that Miyazaki tackles wirh more dwpth and nuance in “Mononoke”.

      When I say that he wrote Mononoke as a response to Nausicaa, I was being literal. He’s gone on the record stating his dissatisfaction with Nausicaa, and that Mononoke was meant to be a response to its flaws. I think he succeeded.

      I think Nausicaa is a great film. I’m going to rewatch it one day. But with a body of work like Miyazaki’s…well not EVERY movie can sit at the top.

      • Mrs. Wright

        Mononoke may do a better job of showing the political points Miyazaki wishes to make about the environment and man’s struggle with it. It does a splendid job of showing both sides of that struggle–how difficult the issues are.

        BUT…the main character does almost nothing. He’s practically just a viewpoint watching what other people do.

        Nausicaa, on the other hand, is one of the most pro-active, valiant and noble characters in any story of any medium. She is curious, insightful, intuitive, utterly brave, and a good leader.

        One of my absolute favorite things about her is that she is a pacifist in the sense that she doesn’t like fighting, and she takes risks to stop it. BUT…she fights when there is a need.

        I think much more of that is needed in our world…a sense of both what is right and just and of what is necessary to live up to it.

        I did not see that nearly as much in Ashitaka, That being said, “Seeing with eyes unclouded by hate” is one of my favorite lines ever, from anywhere.

        • Bellomy

          I am actually kind of shocked that you say Ashitaka does nothing. Ashitaka does EVERYTHING. He travels all over the map attempting to get the people to stop fighting, he brings the head back to the forest spirit, he brings Lady Eboshi back alive at the end. His love for San saves her life at the end.

          Ashitaka FAILS most of the time (though not in the end), which is sort of the point. But he absolutely is active. That said, Nausicaa is clearly the more interesting protagonist, which I did point out here.

          • Mrs. Wright

            He travels and observes…and he is the lynchpin, but he is much less pro-active.

            That being said, it is unfair of me to say he does nothing. He is a very fine character.

          • Bellomy

            I suspect after watching Samurai Jack – and only suspect, having not really seen enough to confirm – that Ashitaka represents a common Japanese type, a hero who is almost perfect in every respect because he is required to respond to an almost perfectly evil darkness – a chosen yin to respond to a yang.

            There’s a great scene in this last season of “Samurai Jack” where we learn that Jack has lost his magic sword because he gave in to his anger. This seems terribly unfair, but it also makes sense: Aku is the ultimate evil, so the man who can beat him needs to be the ultimate good; weakness is literally not allowed.

            So it is with Ashitaka. He is facing a world where everybody is playing some sort of angle, fair or unfair, so his motives must be perfectly pure if he is to rise above it. Hence he actually comes off quite a bit like Jack, in that he;s sort of boring on his own but acts as a representation of higher ideals.

        • Sara Bersani

          “Nausicaa, on the other hand, is one of the most pro-active, valiant and
          noble characters in any story of any medium. She is curious, insightful,
          intuitive, utterly brave, and a good leader.”
          This is absolutely true but comes out better in the manga,
          which is superior to the movie

          • Bellomy

            My understanding is that the manga covers more ground.

          • Lorenzo Fossi

            Well, It’s 7 tankobon long and resumed in 2 hours of movie. It’s the nature of the beast.
            Also, We could probably get old here deciding what’s the best Miyazaki movie but in the end It’s pointless: they’re all awesome, and Totoro is obviously the best thing since sliced bread.

          • Mrs. Wright

            It covers different ground. It starts the same but comes to a different ending.

            Still good, thought

          • Mrs. Wright

            The manga has some great moments, but it kind of moves away from the optimism of the movie…as he didn’t finish it until later and his attitude had changed.