Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of those rare animated features that manages to be an everlasting classic. The 1984 motion picture illustrates the limitless potential of the genre when it comes to storytelling, character building, emotional range, and even moral considerations. Based on his 1982 manga of the same name, Miyazaki’s film is one for the ages.
Made in just nine months for a million dollars, give or take, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is often considered the first of the Studio Ghibli pictures. This isn’t exactly the case, as the Japanese animation studio wasn’t founded until 1985, but Miyazaki and producer Isao Takahata are certainly laying the groundwork and most people consider Topcraft as Ghibli’s natural predecessor.
The movie takes place a thousand years after the Seven Days of Fire, which was an apocalyptic war responsible for the destruction of human civilization and the birth of the Sea of Decay. There are a few settlements, including the titular Valley of the Wind where the princess Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) calls home. She has “befriended” the Sea of Decay and its insects, including the Ohms.
One night, a vessel from the Tomelkian kingdom crash-lands in the Valley of the Wind. Nausicaä tries to rescue the passenger and fails, only to be told that the cargo – the embryo of a Giant Warrior – must be destroyed. The crash sends more of the militaristic Tomelkians to the Valley in search of the embryo, which they purport to use to burn down the Sea of Decay and “save the world.” Nausicaä knows better.
As heroines go, Nausicaä is one of the best. She isn’t some singing irritant of a princess. She gets things done and she recognizes that fear motivates aggression. This understanding of the world, couched in Buddhist teachings, comes through in her interactions with the insects and the human beings. She values all life, even the creepy-crawlies, and that makes her a pretty remarkable individual.
Nausicaä never requires rescue and never manages to have a romance with some sort of dashing prince. There is Asbel (Yōji Matsuda), but he’s pretty useless – at least initially. Miyazaki’s film doesn’t just jam them together; they forge a friendship based on mutual understanding, an understanding that takes a little while to evolve given Asbel’s militaristic background.
Through it all, Nausicaä maintains her compassion. She rescues the closest thing this movie has to a villain, Princess Kushana (Yoshiko Sakakibara), and insists correctly that the Tomelkians are only acting out of fear. Just like Nausicaä’s pet Teto, the aggression comes out of fear and everyone knows what Yoda says about fear.
With Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki has crafted a fully engrossing world with different tribes and nations and species and wonders. The artwork allows the viewer into the landscape of this fantastical time, while Joe Hisaishi’s score features sweeping orchestral moments and music that is right out of the 1980s.
Miyazaki’s attention to detail is everywhere, from the appearance of the Valley’s architecture with its medieval feel. There are clear European influences as well, with the windmills providing both fuel sources and symbolic landmarks. There are stone castles tucked into the grasslands, too, and the buildings stand as testaments to human resolve in light of the Sea of Decay.
The Valley is also emblematic of humanity’s ability to both create and abide destruction. The Sea of Decay furthers this ecological necessity, with the frequent use of the colour blue serving as symbolic of the potential for rebirth. Everything in the Sea of Decay is toxic, but the protagonist has found a way to explore and live with it. When she crashes through to the other side, her compassion is rewarded.
This is an extraordinary motion picture. Its themes are timeless so long as humanity continues to destroy its own habitat and its adventure is right up there with the finest science fiction and fantasy classics. Miyazaki’s animation is lovely beyond words and the characters are wonderfully detailed and intricate. Nausicaä is ahead of her time. Hell, she’s ahead of this time.
Fans of animation should ensure that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is on their must-watch list, but that recommendation also extends to fans of cinema in general. This is a picture with many rewards, some purely aesthetic and some operating on a much deeper level. This is a film made with care, not focus group propositions, and it’s a wonder to behold to this very day.
(Note: There is a version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind called Warriors of the Wind that should be avoided at all costs. This hunk of refuse was put together by New World Pictures and was released theatrically in the US in 1985. It was heavily edited and marketed exclusively to children. The only good thing to come out of Warriors of the Wind was that Miyazaki imposed a “no edits” clause on foreign releases of Studio Ghibli films.)