Against the primitive landscape of a desolated Earth, a lone warrior endeavours to save her people from further devastation. Combatting an oppressive environment, aggressive wildlife and adversarial enemies, she perseveres against the odds, fighting for the future of her community and humanity. However, her exploits do not furnish a dire dystopian drama, nor an exaggerated science fiction effort. Instead, the tale of the spirited Princess Nausicaä’s quest to save her home valley from eradication by natural and cultivated causes in post-apocalyptic times forms the basis of writer, director and animator Hayao Miyazaki’s second full-length feature.
Although 1979’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro marked the Studio Ghibli maestro’s first film after almost two decades toiling away in art and animation departments, it was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika) that announced the extent of his cinematic and storytelling prowess five years later. Adapting his seven volume manga series of the same name for the screen, it not only engaged with a mature yet accessible narrative and arresting watercolour images, but signalled the thematic and aesthetic complexity Miyazaki became known for within his successive, similarly finessed modern fairy tales.
Indeed, his penchant for feisty heroines (Maison Ikkoku’s Sumi Shimamoto in the original, Matchstick Men’s Alison Lohman in the dubbed English-language release), ecological undercurrents and the ample use of the fantastical are overtly yet elegantly established in the smart, sensitive and sublime offering. Also apparent is his embrace of the imaginative, from the rendering of sophisticated social hierarchies beyond the bounds of the expected to the elaborate creatures – human and otherwise – that populate his films, with each evident in what may be his sophomore release but remains his first auteur outing.
Accordingly, the personal and political plight of the enterprising Nausicaä proves pivotal, entertaining and enchanting within the context of the rich, resonant feature that bears her name, as well as setting the standard for the plethora of Miyazaki-helmed efforts – My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea among them – that followed. As she adheres to her beliefs despite significant obstacles and the temptation of taking the easy way out, she takes audiences on a thrilling yet thoughtful adventure with sweet and serious repercussions.
Whilst most of her villagers live in fear of the acidic atmosphere that destroyed human civilisation and has since plagued Earth for 1000 years, Nausicaä dares to delve beyond the harsh exterior of her surroundings. Though the toxic jungle around her struggling settlement casts poisonous spores into the air, and its giant insect guardians – the ohmu – avenge any incursion into their territory, the princess is certain that another way of life is possible. At first, her efforts are focused on saving her father (The Mysterious Cities of Gold’s Mahito Tsujimura , or The Pirates of Dark Water’s Mark Silverman) from the effects of the noxious air, soil and water. An attack by opposing tribes wanting to usurp their land and resources sparks Nausicaä on a difference course of action.
As unsympathetic leader of the Tolmekian people, Princess Kushana (Innocence: Ghost in the Shell’s Yoshiko Sakakibara, or Pulp Fiction’s Uma Thurman), determines to unleash an ancient weapon against the beetle-like beasts and their deadly habitat, Nausicaä enacts a plan with a potentially harmonious outcome. Encouraged by her friend and the land’s greatest swordsman Lord Yupa (Space Cruiser Yamato’s Goro Naya, or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Patrick Stewart), although doubting the extent of her influence, she accepts and learns to understand the reasoning of her environment, with the unlikely assistance of Asbel (Family Game’s Yōji Matsuda, or Disturbia’s Shia LaBeouf) from another warring faction.
Though its memorable content and moving context are reminiscent of other post-apocalyptic texts at the time, the poetic and poignant Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind proves as unique as it is influential. Eschewing the shackles of expectation set by other animated and dystopian efforts, it utilised spectacular yet simple imagery to embody the director’s infatuation with the impact of humankind on the natural elements, selling almost a million tickets in Japan in the process. Indeed, its success sparked the formation of the beloved studio Miyazaki is now synonymous with, just as the alternative take on anime – favouring accessible and inventive content for all ages over the adult-oriented violence common in other efforts at the time – started a trend within Japanese animation. Although often overlooked given the helmer’s later film achievements, the beautiful, bittersweet feature remains one of his undisputed masterpieces.