NAUSICAӒ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

  • Director: Hayao Miyazaki
  • Writer: Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, based on his Manga
  • Starring: Sumi Shimamoto, Goro Naya, Yoji Matsuda, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Iemasa Kayumi, Ichiro Nagai, Hisako Kyoda, Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos, and Tress MacNeille
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I have seen most of Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre over the years, but I hadn’t watched one of his earlier works, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I know that Princess Mononoke and probably Howl’s Moving Castle are more visually impressive, but… I think this might be my favorite of all of them? It is pretty much its own genre, an environmentalist post-apocalyptic diesel-punk sci-fi and/or fantasy epic about giant bugs. If you are someone who cannot deal with little bugs, let’s just say this is not the movie for you. There’s a giant fire-breathing human thing that might have been responsible for the end of the world, a beautiful lady with bright red hair in what looks like a gold suit of armor going around crashing huge airships into mountains, and serious discussions about tree diseases. It’s kind of a kids movie, I think? And unlike most other movies, the day is saved in the end by empathy overcoming violence. So that’s fun.

While later Miyazaki movies, staring with Princess Mononoke, would receive a simultaneous “Western” release, Nausicaä came out way before that, at a time when Japanese animation was more of a niche market elsewhere. Thinking it would never work in the US as a “kids movie,” American distributors cut over 20 minutes out of the movie, most of which was the “environmental stuff,” and released their version, briefly theatrically and then on video, under the title Warriors of the Wind. Because Americans are also not into random umlauts in people’s names, I guess. Once Miyazaki achieved worldwide fame decades later (and Spirited Away won an Oscar), the same translation team put together a much more faithful English release with a star-studded voice case, which eventually came out on DVD in 2005. This version is now available for streaming on HBO Max.

Nausicaä takes place in the distant future “a thousand years after the seven days of fire,” when much of the world is threatened by a “toxic jungle” full of giant bugs. The jungle seems to be spreading everywhere and threatening the remaining humans. Some large empires think the solution will be to burn the jungle, but the “princess” of a small village (the titular Nausicaä, voiced by Sumi Shimamoto and/or Alison Lohman). She ends up involved in a conflict between neighboring kingdoms, which all have their own ideas about what to do with the giant plant things and how to stop the jungle, when Nausicaä knows that if we leave them alone eventually everything will be cool and the Earth will be cleaned. I think that’s what happens anyway.

The princess has a little glider thing that she flies around on, while the surrounding kingdoms have these huge propeller-driven, smoke-spewing monstrosities that they fly around in. She is driving a mini in a world of ridiculous SUVs. In 1984, her glider was pure fiction, but in fact it has since inspired scientists to make a real-world equivalent. Miyazaki offered the inventor of a single-passenger, jet-powered glider the endorsement of his Studio Ghibli, but he refused it on the basis that he “didn’t want to cause them any problems if somebody crashed and got hurt.” Which to be fair literally happens to Nausicaä in this movie. I would make a joke here about my not having a jet pack, but if I did I would definitely crash it and die.

More than almost any other similar film I can think of, Nausicaä feels like it takes place in a fully realized world, and makes real the idea of humans being dwarfed by their environment more than most live-action films that employ buttloads of CGI. Miyazaki’s take on environmental threat was apparently inspired by the poisoning with mercury of Japan’s Minamoto Bay around this time, which ironically allowed nature to thrive because nobody could eat any of the seafood from there anymore. What I like about Miyazaki’s take on the environment is that it’s complicated. This isn’t a dichotomy between people who want to destroy nature and people who want to save it. We aren’t going to save it. It’s coming to kill us. Miyazaki’s big insight is that maybe it should. 

The English-language voice cast of the version that eventually got made included names like Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos, and, very randomly, Shia LaBeouf, all of whom are clearly having a ball as various side characters. One thing that I like about the film is that there aren’t really any villains. There are people who have reactions to the encroaching natural world that are driven by fear, and there are those who have reactions driven by empathy, but everyone is just out to protect themselves and their own groups. Miyazaki’s take on the world is endlessly refreshing in that way.

One thing westerners often find confusing about Miyazaki is that his movies sort of seem like they’re for kids, what with the animation and a lot of child protagonists. I also think that at least some of them were intended by Miyazaki as being for kids. However, the line between what is for kids and what is for adults is not so defined in many parts of the world, and while there isn’t a lot of swearing or sex or anything, these are quite a bit darker than I get the impression a lot of American parents are OK with. Maybe they should be, but I’m not them, so what do I know?

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