Miyazaki's Action Trinity: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

In 2006, as part of a last-ditch effort to up its rapidly-dwindling ratings, Toonami, Cartoon Network’s action-anime block, screened four of director Hayao Miyazaki’s films over a month. To say the event was successful is an understatement, but it was interesting noting the films it showed off: Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Hmm… (Courtesy of Michael Fernandez.)

These are also my four favourite Miyazaki movies, albeit not necessarily in that order. But it’s worth noting that I was a fan of them before I knew that Toonami had done this marathon (we don’t get Toonami in Canada.) All four are brilliantly-made, and I’d easily recommend them to a novice to Miyazaki as a director. Yet while Spirited Away deserves its own analysis piece, I think it's best to focus on the three films that comprise what I consider “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity”.

So that’s what I’ll do for the next three articles. I’ll even do it chronologically, i.e. year of release, since it’s the easiest. Do keep in mind that there’ll be spoilers, and while I won’t give ratings, I’ll still rank them in order of preference. Here goes:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind had a lot going against it: it was director Hayao Miyazaki’s first independent film following The Castle of Cagliostro. It was his first big-budget project. The entire movie was only allotted nine months for production, so hours were long and staff had to be hired on commission. And it was to be adapted from the first volume and a half of Miyazaki’s then-unfinished Manga of the same name. To say that it paid off is an understatement.

The film follows Princess Nausicaä in her struggle to save The Valley of the Wind from destruction. It kicks off when the Tolmekkians, led by Princess Kushana, invade The Valley of the Wind, murder their ailing king and try reawakening an ancient beast called The God Warrior. The Tolmekkians also select hostages to bring back to Tolmekkia, a trek that’s cut-short when a Pejite gunship, flown by Prince Asbel, intervenes and lands them in the middle of The Toxic Jungle. From here, loyalties are tested, Nausicaä uncovers a plot to destroy her home, and the film’s pro-environmentalist themes start showing.

Right away, this is a film run by emotion, not logic. Any attempts to deconstruct it narratively will instantly cause it to fall apart. For example, the film starts off with a backstory about The Seven Days of Fire, and how they destroyed the planet. What were The Seven Days of Fire? Why did they destroy the world? And who created those Giant God Warriors shown in the opening montage? I know this is fantasy, hence you’re allowed to break logic, but the film never answers these questions despite constantly referencing the events.

This extends to character dialogue. Most of the time, the characters speak in expository monologues. Even by anime standards this is excessive. This is because they frequently narrate their motivations, their feelings and their thoughts. It seems like a buzzkill to have everyone ramble on and on about this or that, and there’s rarely, if any, room for a breather. In most circumstances, this’d become draining.

And yet, both the storytelling and writing are compensated for with the emotion. So what if the narrative’s riddled with holes? It’s compelling. The character writing is the same, with every line of exposition, right down to the irrelevant ones, uttered with sincerity. That’s not to say there’s no intelligence to be had, there is, but, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it’s not interested in that.

This even extends to the music and animation. The score, helmed by then-relative newcomer Joe Hisaishi, evokes childish nostalgia. The tunes range from electronic synth, to full-out orchestrations, to even hybrids. Hisaishi would score more ambitious music in future Miyazaki works, but for now this hybrid fits the “damaged innocence” vibe the movie has going for it. I can’t picture it working half as well without it.

The animation follows suit. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was made on a budget of roughly a single episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. That might seem like a lot by anime standards, but it’s nothing compared to most Western animated films. Even The Emoji Movie, a relatively-cheap film, cost infinitely more to produce. Yet due to the artistry of Miyazaki and his staff, the film’s world isn’t only fluid and colourful, it looks good 33 years later. I especially like the designs on the non-human characters, particularly The God Warrior in the finale. That was legendary anime director Hideaki Anno’s first work in animation, and it’s impressive.

As for characters, none of them are “real” in ways that future Miyazaki casts are, but it doesn’t matter. They too fuel the film’s overarching emotion. When Princess Lastelle dies, for example, you feel it, despite her not being in the movie for long and having minimal lines. Asbel, while Nausicaä’s second-wheel for most of the film, ends up sympathetic because the film dictates it. I know that this feels an awful lot like cheap manipulation, but since the movie isn’t working on logic it’s hard to really fault it.

Perhaps the best example of the film’s emotional resonance is Nausicaä. There’s a growing trend in the anime community to label her as a shallow, Mary Sue gender-swap of Jesus, especially given how minimally-flawed she is and how she doesn’t change much. I don’t agree, even though the Jesus allegory’s intentional, because her character arc operates on emotion. She doesn’t change much, but her entire arc, small as it is, is learning to be the saviour that everyone else believes her to be. And it works.

That’s what makes this movie so great: it’s an example of the whole being better than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say that I’d excuse this angle from Miyazaki had he done it now, but for an ambitious second project that tackled environmentalism when the idea was novel, I’m really impressed. The Manga the film’s based on might also be more cohesive and fleshed-out, but I prefer Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as a film because it gets to the point and delivers an emotionally-satisfying whole.

Does this mean that the film’s flawless? No. Even on its own logic, the film starts unravelling in the finale. The God Warrior, while neat, is barely on-screen and feels wasted. And the ending is a cop-out. It may be another resurrection analogy, that’s a given when your protagonist is fantasy Jesus, but it ends without much of a wrap-up. In fact, not only does it wrap-up in the credits, which’d confuse anyone not familiar with how anime films are structured, but it’s a little too clean for my tastes.

As one last point, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s emotionally-draining. I’ll forever attest that Hayao Miyazaki not draining like Isao Takahata, see Grave of the Fireflies or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but in terms of his own works, and in keeping with the film’s underpinning, there are so many moments of over-investment that you’re bound to be exhausted by the end. It’s something you have to experience in order to fully-appreciate.

Would I recommend Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Absolutely! It’s not Miyazaki’s smartest-written movie, nor would I consider it the best of the trinity, but its strengths overshadow any flaws it has. There’s a reason the film endures now, and it’s not because anime fans are annoying, but because it’s that good and paves the way for what to expect from the director. That’s also probably why it was screened on Toonami as part of A Month of Miyazaki.

And thus concludes the first part of my “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity” series. Join me next time as I tackle steampunk fantasy with Castle in the Sky. I’ll see you then!


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