Nakama: Jose on Nausicaa, the film

Nakama is our guest column featuring articles written by key voices in the Indian anime and manga community.

In part one of this two-part column, Jose analyses Miyazaki's film adaptation of the manga, which would lead to the creation of Studio Ghibli. Stay tuned for part two, in which he will analyse the original manga.

Note: Nausicaa the film is based on Hayao Miyazaki’s own manga of the same name, and plot-wise covers the first one-third or so of it. I will be looking at the film this week, and the rest of the manga next week. Oh, and I will also include my tinfoil theory of how the story is a metaphor for the environmentalist movement. Finally, be warned: the manga has a major twist towards the end, which I will have to spoil in next week’s column.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Part 1: the film

Some films are considered landmarks in their fields. They may show something new, or show something old in a new way. They may capture the mood of the day, or the century. Critics and audience will spend years discussing the montages in Battleship Potemkin, or the use of perspective in Triumph of the Will. But beyond these technical novelties, most such works also have a powerful story to tell.

Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (henceforth Kaze) is such a landmark in the history of animation films. Its success led him to form Studio Ghibli the following year, and many of Miyazaki’s later works are in fact re-tellings of the same story. Let’s see:

• Gorgeous landscapes? Check.

• Well-written, realistic characters? Check.

• Plausible and relatable motives for all sides, including the ‘baddies’? Check.

• Sublime soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi? Check.

• Liberal dose of flying machines? Check.

• Pacifist, humanist and/or environmentalist morals? Triple-check!

Nausicaa, the hero with a thousand faces.

Kaze is set in a post-apocalyptic world. A world-wide conflict known as the Seven Days of Fire had sent society and technology into a tailspin. A vast, inhospitable jungle, called the Sea of Decay, grew to cover most of the land, suffocating any humans who enter it without protective masks. Giant insects called Ohmu live in these forests, attacking any humans who disturb it. The survivors created numerous societies in relatively safe spots, of which the Valley of the Wind is one. Nausicaa, the daughter of the village chief, is a glider pilot who explores the Sea of Decay for salvage. Pejite, another town, discovers a buried weapon known as the Giant Warrior, leading to open war with regional power Tolmekia over it. The Valley of the Wind gets caught in the crossfire.

The Valley of the Wind

Now, what makes this rather generic story a Ghibli masterpiece?

First of all, the animation. Kaze, like most of Miyazaki’s works, feels quite different from most anime in this regard. The artwork is reminiscent of French or American cartoons — simple, two-dimensional characters, subdued action, and a highly detailed and realistic background. The colour palette is subdued, with judicious use of strong contrast. This realism and attention to detail is also found in the plot — no fourth-wall breaking here.

Sensei needs just one colour to paint an entire scene.

One other point where Kaze differs from almost all animation — Japanese or Western — is in the lack of any humour, songs or side-stories. Since a couple of manga volumes were packed into a two-hour film, the pacing is rapid. The film does not tell you everything explicitly; be prepared to watch it two or three times to understand all the beautiful little touches. Also, some parts that don’t fully make sense within the film — such as the legend of the one who walks on fields of gold — actually make perfect sense in the full manga, but suffer here from lack of context.

Kaze is an early Miyazaki work, and while the main characters are well-written and feel satisfyingly human, minor characters such as the villagers and the soldiers lack individual identities and are sometimes treated as a sort of chorus. Of course, this criticism can only be made in comparison with the high standards of later Ghibli works like Spirited Away; the minor characters in Kaze are still much better written than those in your run-of-the-mill anime film.

Special mention must of course go to the character of Nausicaa. How can I describe her? A guileless hero with uncompromising morals? A pacifist who will calmly tell off an arrogant, gun-toting general for being bloody stupid? A genuinely strong person who is still human enough to laugh, cry and get frighteningly angry? Superman without the super-powers? Explorer? Scientist? (Reluctant) defender of more or less anyone and anything she sees? In Nausicaa Miyazaki combines a childlike curiosity with a refreshingly open, all-encompassing worldview, a template he would re-use in varied forms for his later protagonists.

Joe Hisaishi, who would go on to compose music for many more Ghibli fims, presents us with two beautiful gems in the opening track and in Nausicaa’s theme ("Days Long Gone").

Miyazaki’s love of flying machines is quite obvious, from Nausicaa’s rocket-assisted glider to the gigantic Tolmekian warships. The ‘peaceful’ and ‘military’ fliers are drawn in very distinct styles, celebrating the joy of flight on one hand while also showing the destruction that such power can bring.

Möwe, Nausicaa's glider (Möwe means 'gull' in German)

Watch-worthy? Yes. Partly because it is a great film in its own right, and partly because so many modern classics, from Spirited Away to Final Fantasy to Neon Genesis Evangelion, trace their roots to it. But make sure you are watching the original Japanese with subtitles, or the 2006 Disney dub, and not the 1984 Macekre by Manson (titled Warriors of the Wind).

I began by saying that landmark films often put forward a certain worldview. Kaze looks at the relation between humans and their environment, and can be seen as echoing the history of the conservation movement. The manga has two key moments, of which only the first occurs in the movie. This is the realisation that the plants in the Sea of Decay are not inherently poisonous, and that they are in fact purifying the toxic air. This epiphany correlates with the first step of the environmentalist movement — the realisation that forests, wastelands and other ‘wilds’ are not ‘bad places’ to be tamed and cultivated, but are necessary for human life.

This idea might seem simple and obvious today, but it was not always so. Historically, most people saw natural resources as god-given gifts, and their exploitation as a right, or even as a duty. They agreed with Aristotle that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’.

But at some point, something would run out. There might not be enough wood, or water, or the land might lose its fertility. Then people would come up either with totally pointless solutions like human sacrifice, or somewhat more intelligent ones like restrictions on resource use. Such rules may came from above: so a royal statistician might note the falling supplies of timber or game animals and call for forests to be protected. Or they could come from ‘below’, from village or community level taboos or norms surrounding the use of sacred groves or tanks.

Much later, scientists collected and published evidence of the dangers of overusing resources. So the English gardener John Evelyn wrote of the shortage of timber in 1664; in 1800 the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt recorded how in Venezuela the destruction of forests led to the drying up of springs and caused seasonal floods and droughts.

Finally, a number of writers and artists celebrated the wilds and mourned their destruction, creating public support for their protection. Cornelius Ledges’ newspaper articles, WH Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings convinced the US government to protect Yellowstone as a National Park, while Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to public awareness about the dangers of DDT, and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

It was thus through a mixture of practical considerations, scientific studies, art and public pressure that the conservation movement was born. Whatever the reasoning behind it, most people nowadays would say that our environment needs to be protected.

But should it?

Find out in next week’s manga review.

Everybody together: "AWWW..."

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