Hiyao Miyazaki’s second film that he directed displays all the elements that have made him legendary: a brave heroine, a strong environmental message, dazzling flight, and extraordinary images that linger in the mind long after the movie ends. The story follows a young princess trying to save humanity while facing hostile neighboring kingdoms, deadly giant insects, and a world devastated by an ancient war. It is a great pleasure to review the movie that allowed Studio Ghibli to be founded.
Way back in the early 1980s, animated movies were in the doldrums with Disney suffering a creative and financial slump. Other studios attempted to recapture the magic, but none saw great success. In later years Disney would rise again, yet it was over in Japan that real animated magic was reborn thanks to the creative genius of a struggling forty year old animator named Hayao Miyazaki.
Having had some success in directing the adaptation of Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, Miyazaki wanted to make his own creations but was getting nowhere. It took Toshio Susuki the editor in chief of Animage magazine befriending him for things to finally start rolling. Finding Miyazaki bursting with ideas he suggested that Hayao create a manga to run in the magazine.
That manga debuted in 1982 and was called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Its success made it possible to raise funds to make a movie and the world of animation, not just anime, would never be the same. Miyazaki’s works would go on to influence traditional animators and even the new wave of computer generated animation movies at Pixar.
Nausicaä opens with a masked man riding a strange dodo-like bird out of a wind swept haze. Visually and auditorily striking, the scene seems to step straight out of one the era’s fantasy magazines such as Heavy Metal or Epic Illustrated. I have the vague memory of seeing the intro either in stills or possibly flipping past the horrifically altered version Warriors of the Wind on HBO at the time. Suffice it to say this was nothing like the staid Disney animation of the time and made an impression.
The man investigates the ruins of a settlement that has become overgrown by fungi in a very grim introduction to the setting. Once the credits start rolling it becomes clear that this is the future Earth and not some fantasy world. A wealth of information is quietly and quickly conveyed through intercutting tapestries depicting the downfall of man with the actual events briefly glimpsed. Fire breathing giants laying waste to the world alternate with images of a white winged woman sometimes clothed in blue dominate the introduction…
Back to the events unfolding we are shown a figure on gull winged jet glider flying over the gigantic spores. The young woman also wears one of the strange gasmasks and also a light blue tunic with matching accessories. Did I mention the glider was white?
She is well armed for her explorations within the bizarre forest for it is teeming with huge mutated insects that are quick to anger. Along the way we hear her inner thoughts while she takes samples and discovers the enormous husk of an insect called an Ohm. An message about living in harmony with nature is present right away for she uses her wits to survive and scavenge in this strange but beautiful environment.
The peaceful interlude ends with the sounds of gunfire. Quick witted, the as of yet unidentified girl finds the source of the distress signal and swiftly mounts a rescue of the man seen in the beginning. He’s managed to find the Ohm that shed the husk and provoke it, but fortunately for him the girl is incredibly talented at charming animals.
With him saved, it is time for them to unmask and for their names to be finally heard. Lord Yupa was chased for saving a little fox-squirrel from the Sea of Decay (or Toxic Jungle in the dub – I prefer the subtitle translation) that quickly makes a painful impression on Nausicaä the girl in blue. Her unique ability to bond with animals is demonstrated in an endearing scene that reminds me of experiences I’ve had in rescuing feral kittens.
It turns out there is more to the girl than brains, bravery, and animal handling. Nausicaä is the Princess of the Valley of the Wind which is a small kingdom blessed with an untainted forest and farmland. There her father is bedridden from years of exposure to the spores of the Sea of Decay which is the fate for all who live near it. Lord Yupa is something of an explorer and adventurer of the world so his report that the Sea is spreading is met with some dismay. Worse yet, wars between the surviving kingdoms are spreading.
What is it that Yupa is searching for? According to the blind wise woman, Obaba, he is looking for a figure out of legend. A man clothed in blue walking in a golden field who will lead the people to a pure land is how the ancient prophecy goes. A tapestry border shows the bearded man with a strange yellow bird on his shoulder. This leads to some grumbling from Lord Yupa who appears to want to remain mysterious.
Night brings no comforts to a concerned Nausicaä and something alarming when the wind kicks up. Summoned to the watch, she witnesses the arrival of an immense aircraft in a spectacular piece of animation. Lurching in the wind it is in danger of hitting the high cliffs that protect the valley. Showing no fear, Nausicaä launches into the night sky to save the ship.
Tragedy follows and the princess encounters her counterpart from another kingdom. Lastel of Pejite lives just long enough for Nausicaä to comfort her that the plane’s cargo was surely destroyed in the crash. Something is very wrong – the dead girl is in chains and the airship was Tolmekian.
It turns out there were three deadly cargos in the crashed aircraft. One is an immediate danger that only our heroine’s unique skills can handle. The second is spores from the Sea of Decay that have fallen into the forest and require burning out lest they destroy everything green.
The last cargo is something far more ominous and untouched by the fire. Lord Yupa and Mito, King Jihl’s right hand man, worry about what they have found. More disquieting is that the strange object appears to be alive. Recognizing the object, Yupa explains just what a threat it may become.
What had been a nice adventure story about an adventurous princess has gotten dark fairly quickly.
It isn’t long before Tolmekian transports land in the Valley of the Wind to disgorge tanks and troops. Nausicaä orders her people to shelter while making a desperate run to the castle before the invaders do. Her failure to do so costs the young woman dearly.
Now a conquered kingdom, the Valley of the Wind finds itself under the iron (possibly brass plated) fisted rule of the Princess of Tolmekia, Kushana. Nausicaä is heartbroken and destroys a secret laboratory she had under the castle where she had found a way to grow untainted fungal plants. Despair has her in its grip though she puts on a brave face in order to save her people.
Much of society in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is modeled on European feudal states and an aspect of that is taking hostages from the conquered royal family back to your capital. Leaving the wry soldier and aide Kurotowa to keep an eye on things, Kushana leaves for Tolmekia with Nausicaä and a group of prisoners. The aerial convoy runs into trouble rather quickly when a gunship (fighter) attacks.
An escape from fiery doom using the family gunship leads Nausicaä to what may be an even greater danger: the Sea of Decay. Endangering her own life and most likely condemning herself to a slow death, she guides her people to a safe landing within the teeming forest. However, the insects are angry about the interlopers.
Nausicaä demonstrates her strange ability to placate Ohms and a strange vision is given to her. It involves a golden field, a strange child’s wordless song, and a majestic tree that glitters in the sunlight. It is a powerful moment in the movie that makes the story seem much bigger than it already is.
For a second time the princess has to rescue someone firing shots in the Sea of Decay. This time it is the pilot of the attacking gunship and he is revealed to be the brother of Lastel, Asbel of Pejite. Not all goes well during the rescue and another vision reveals a connection between a younger Nausicaä and the Ohms.
Also revealed is what lays beneath the Sea of Decay: a serene place of cold crystalline beauty untainted with toxins. Here the overburdened princess makes a discovery that causes her to cry as she has found something that changes everything known.
Back at the Valley of the Wind, Kurotowa gets some choice lines as he ponders the object retrieved from the crash. It is an embryonic horror growing larger under the care of the Tolmekians. The ultimate weapon from a thousand years before it is relic that destroyed civilization during the Seven Days of Fire.
All the pieces are now prepared for the battlefield and nothing but war remains. Will humanity destroy the Sea of Decay at long last or will it be destroyed by the insects? Actually, it looks like the humans may destroy themselves first.
This movie makes me nostalgic for the the films of the 1980s that were very experimental and dared to take chances unlike today’s very formulaic films. In the case of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki succeeded wildly in crafting a compelling story, nuanced characters, and a visual feast like nothing anyone had seen. The people of Japan rewarded his work with lines around the block on opening day and by making it the number one movie of 1984.
The financial success of Nausicaä allowed the founding of Studio Ghibli and started the long string of box office smashes from Miyazaki and other directors from the studio. Sadly it was butchered in an early American release and never had a chance to succeed here. Even today, the studio’s movies only get limited release here in the States. Thankfully we have DVDs and Blu-rays to spread the magic!
But back to the movie itself. Nausicaä is a compelling adventure story that doesn’t soft pedal sadness and loss or the cost of war. Like many of Miyazaki’s later movies, it is an antiwar film as well as a pro environmentalist story. Those messages can be be heavy handed in entertainment, but here they are seamlessly integrated into the story along with a sense of wonder.
Visually the movie is stunning, especially when compared to other animated films of the time. Every scene has something to delight the eye and the attention to detail cannot help but to impress. Whether it be the unearthly beauty of the Sea of Decay or the ruins of long lost weapons of the past, everything is fascinating to see.
The amazing visuals are matched well by Joe Hisaishi’s score that blends orchestral themes with so very 80s synth. This was their first collaboration and it is hard to imagine his lovely music being absent from Miyazaki’s movies. While it is not his best work, the seeds of his later scores were planted here.
Even with a beautifully crafted movie there needs to be something more to achieve greatness and that’s a main character the audience can develop an attachment to. Oh what a wonderful heroine Nausicaä is! She is smart, daring, independent, vulnerable, and noble while never coming off like a Mary Sue – which is an amazing feat if you think about it. This princess puts all of Disney’s to shame as do all of the director’s heroines come to think of it.
Nausicaä carries the story with her love of life and willingness to sacrifice herself for others. If you want a good role model for girls, you will be hard pressed to find a better one in fiction. Of course I find tomboys more attractive than girly girls, so you might take my opinion with a grain of salt. She’s still an impressive character by any criteria.
The movie is rated PG for good reason due to the many violent deaths and some bloody scenes. It isn’t aimed at little kids and parents should be aware of this. If you do choose to let kids in single digits watch this be prepared to do a lot of explaining. Really young kids may have nightmares from the imagery.
I recommend Nausicaä to lovers of animation, science fiction, action, great characters, and spectacle. This is a terrific movie that has grown on me over the years and moved steadily up my list of Studio Ghibli films after each viewing.
Having never acquired the DVD release of Nausicaä due to it being a low priority. The faded quality of the version I first saw years ago probably had a lot to do with it. In 2011, Disney released the Blu-ray and last year I decided to fill a gap in my collection. That turned out to be a great decision.
Disney’s first Studio Ghibli Blu-ray release includes the movie on DVD and is of the digitally restored version. Suffice it to say this is the best the movie has ever looked in the States. The movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen in 1.85:1 ratio for both discs while the Blu-ray is in 1080p High Definition.
It is absolutely gorgeous with the colors finally being faithful. This is important due to prior releases making it look like Nausicaä wasn’t wearing any pants or underwear! The color of her pants were too close to the skin tone used and got lost in the mastering before this release.
Something to note is that not all the original elements were well preserved. As a consequence, some scenes are soft while others are razor sharp. It seems like a lot of films from the 1980s must have been shot on cheap film stock because it is something I’ve noticed in other restorations from the period.
Audio is nice and clear with DTS-HD Master Audio in stereo for Japanese, English, and French. Subtitles are provided in English, English SDH, and French.
The English dub is fairly good, though I thought Alison Lohman was a little shaky as Nausicaä. Patrick Stewart is quite good as Lord Yupa as is Uma Thurman as Kushana. The big surprise is how much fun Edward James Olmos is as Mito. His performance has to be the most light hearted I’ve ever
seen heard out of him.
There are a lot of good extras spread across the Blu-ray and DVD discs to peruse:
Behind the Microphone – This is in 4:3 ratio video and contains interviews with the English voice cast about performing their parts. I had to say the comment about moustache syncing Stewart had to do was amusing.
The Birth Story of Studio Ghibli – Again in 4:3 ratio this almost half hour documentary is an update from a Japanese television special that aired after Princess Mononoke came out. A mix of interviews and reenactments details the early history of the studio from Nausicaä through 1998. One of the more interesting tidbits is that the success of Only Yesterday saved them from closing up shop and allowed an expansion instead.
Original TV Trailers – A more interesting than usual look at the commercials for the movie reveals concept art (probably from the manga) and a pop song about Nausicaä! Definitely worth a look.
Original Japanese Storyboards – The entire movie in storyboards presented in 1080p gives a great look into how the story was all planned out.
Behind the Studio: Creating Nausicaä – A short 16:9 1080p look at the creation of the manga and movie. Interviews with Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Joe Hisaishi make up the bulk of it.
Enter the Lands – A clever interactive map allows access to previews and games of other Studio Ghibli films. Sadly not all are accessible in the North American version. This should be fun for kids to play.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
The escape by Nausicaä from the Pejite Brig is high adventure at its best. So much action crammed into such a short amount of time normally is overwhelming, but Miyazaki showed his genius here. The idea of boarding an airship this way was very imaginative.
The family gunship is a nifty design and it makes me want to track down the plastic model kit that was put out in Japan. While its outlines are somewhat organic, it is a mechanical marvel with mysterious steampunk liquid gauges in its throwback to WWI interior.
Another intriguing design is the 1,000 year old wreck of a starship on the beach. It looks a lot like a submarine and is an unusual place for the finale to take place at.
HD makes the discovery of the rampaging Ohms look absolutely stunning on a large HDTV. The entire sequence of finding the reason for their rage and trying to rescue the baby is simply superb.
I may be no expert on colors, but blending blue Ohm blood with a pinkish dress should not yield an intense blue outcome. The first couple of times I watched the movie my brain rejected this outright and I couldn’t figure out how Nausicaä ended up in a blue dress at the end!
The prematurely birthed Giant Warrior is a true horror and the things little kids have bad dreams about. It is grotesque and disgusting while making for an exciting reveal.
But hey, it packed quite a punch before melting down. This is the scene that stuck in my head the most watching it long ago.
Now when a movie has the main character with the ability to communicate with animals show up to stop them it usually works. Instead, Nausicaä is killed almost instantly by the berserk Ohms in a realistic depiction of how wild animals behave. It was shocking to see this and even more so when the grieving faces of her people were dwelt on.
However, her death does cause the Ohms to stop due to the upset little Ohm she saved earlier. Is it the infant she tried to protect as a child in her second vision? No clear answer is given, but the child singing is heard again as the gathered adults raise her on their tentacles/feelers. Then they begin to heal her wounds in a magical moment.
I liked how stunned everyone at what was happening, especially Kushana and Kurotowa. By this point it was clear the Tolmekian princess had become a fan of Nausicaä and that there was more to this scarred woman than meets the eye. Both were great characters I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of.
The prophecy of a savior clothed in blue walking on a golden field is realized in the strangest possible way. If you pay close attention to the opening credits you will see a corruption of the prophecy in the images occurring over time. It goes from a woman in blue with white wings to a man in blue with a strange striped bird striding through a wheat field.
The end result is a girl in blue walking on countless Ohm tentacles who rides a white wing shaped jet glider and has a fox-squirrel perched on her shoulder. At least the old prophets were somewhat right.
The closing scenes also play through the end credits and hint at a shared future between Nausicaä and Asbel. He seems pretty happy to see her alive, doesn’t he?
The final image before the Japanese characters for “The End” appear is that of Nausicaä’s lost helmet below the Sea of Decay. There a tree has sprouted that does not look like a fungi. This is appropriate for a couple of reasons: the rebirth brought about by her discoveries and that the story isn’t over.
Well, Miyazaki only loosely adapted about a quarter of his manga which wasn’t finished until 1994. There is a lot more to the story and I really should get my hands on it some day.