Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
I've praised the works of Hayao Miyazaki before, and it looks like I'll be doing it again in this review. Last time I was writing about his most recent film, 'Howl's Moving Castle'. This time I'm writing about one of his earliest feature films, one that appears to be the first to have embodied all of the traits that are now hallmarks of his work.
'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' takes place in Earth's distant future and tells the story of a girl named Nausicaa. The world was ravaged by a disaster a thousand years ago and has degenerated into an agrarian society with rudimentary technologies. The planet is being covered in a poisonous forest called the 'Sea of Decay' where deadly giant insects and creatures called 'Ohmu' roam, and the growth of the forest is encroaching on the remaining scattered human settlements. Nausicaa is the Princess of a small, peaceful settlement - the Valley of the Wind - which has managed to live in relative harmony along the border of the Sea of Decay.
Trouble hits the Valley when they get caught in the middle of a conflict between two warring nations, Pejite and Tolmekia. Pejite unearths an ancient biological weapon which is stolen by Tolmekia and inadvertently ends up in the Valley; the Valley is then invaded by Tolmekian Princess Kushana and her army and used as a staging point for unleashing the weapon (it becomes too dangerous to move). Both sides seek to use the weapon, first against each other and then against the 'Sea of Decay' to prevent it from covering the whole planet and wiping out mankind. Nausicaa, who is peace loving and who is studying the Sea of Decay to try and understand it, is naturally resistant to their plans and becomes entwined in events as she tries to prevent and violence from taking place.
That's only a broad summary, and the actual events and range of characters is far more complex. There are multiple storylines that occur concurrently and that all come together in a very satisfying and spectacular conclusion. There are other supporting characters in the mix, such as the mentor figure Lord Yupa, a young Pejitean (?) named Asbel, a man from the Valley named Mito, and an ambitious but smart Tolmekian soldier named Kurotowa. The wonderful thing about these supporting characters is that they are all fully realized and memorable in their own right, each with his or her own idiosyncrasies. And then there's Nausicaa herself, who is a headstrong and noble protagonist trying to make sense of a fantastical and dangerous world while being caught in the middle of various factions and their interests. She is an empathetic, charismatic, and inspiring leader with an adventurous spirit, and becoming invested in her story is simply inevitable.
The film is a mix of large scale events and smaller, more intimate ones that are layered with spiritual undertones. As can be gathered from the story description, the Miyazaki themes of environmental destruction and nature's unsympathetic retaliation, supernatural / mutant anthropomorphised creatures, and war and militaristic arrogance are all in there front and centre, and are as compelling as always. Nature is portrayed as being beautiful but also deadly; there's no overly cutesy stuff in here, with even the cute animals being capable of viciousness while, ironically, the hideous and scary beasts are sometimes docile. This sincere approach to depicting a complex world that is less black and white and more shades of gray is another of the film's attributes that raises it head and shoulders above its less accomplished brethren.
While the animation is obviously not as refined as in more recent films, 'Nausicaa' is still a joy to behold and full of the visual splendour you would expect from Miyazaki There's no computer assisted imagery and the details are not as fine, but it's still a spectacular film. The designs are distinctive and wonderful and the vistas are breathtaking, with the flying sequences where Nausicaa rides a glider being particularly captivating and memorable. The film is full of little details and quirks that breathe life into the world and characters on display, with movements and expressions that speak volumes in ways that even many live action films fail to approach. The design on all of Miyazaki's films embraces a stylized reality - the world is full of beauty and wonder, but it can also be unattractive as well and at times horrifying. As I said, there's nothing cutesy, and not all people are good looking idealized paragons of humanity. Again, a more complex and realistic world view. This is also apparent in the action and violence in the film, where people get hurt and die and where there are consequences, which in turn makes those moments far more exciting and involving.
It's longer than the average cartoon, and one could argue that it is very deliberately paced; there are a lot of character moments in the film that break up the action sequences. This in no way means that the film is boring, though, as almost everything that happens is absolutely compelling from start to finish, and when action takes place it is well staged and exciting. Apart from the slightly dated animation, the only real weak spot in this film is the synthesized music, which is fairly good but lacks the grandness and beauty of the orchestral scores heard in newer Miyazaki films. One could also argue that Princess Mononoke is akin to a technically superior remake of this film, though to me they feel like different entities with some plot similarities; in any case, 'Nausicaa' is in no way made obsolete by the existence of 'Mononoke'.
I've now seen yet another amazing film from Hayao Miyazaki. It seems improbable that he has been on a continuous winning streak that has spanned over two decades, but it's true. I still have a handful of his films to see, and will be doing so ASAP, but have little doubt that they'll be brilliant, or at the very least just plain good. 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' is a magnificent epic film that is up there with my favourite Miyazaki films and is well worth watching.