Original release: March 4th, 1984
Running time: 114 minutes
Writer and director: Hayao Miyazaki
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
English voice cast: Alison Lohman, Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf, Patrick Stewart
I doubt anyone remembers the first film they saw for sure. Those early and often faded memories can be elusive and unreliable – more likely there’s a number of “candidates”, and personally I’d like to think Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was indeed my first film experience.
I remember Princess Nausicaä flying with her glider, a gigantic airship crashing in the middle of the night, and I just can’t forget seeing an infinite sea of massive insect-like creatures raging towards helpless people while a sinister, organic weapon called the “Giant Warrior” sets the horizon on fire. The theme song “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” sang by a child makes me shiver every time as I’m engulfed in some of my earliest memories.
Today I know Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is more than just a childhood memory; watching it as an adult, I naturally have a new perspective on its themes and characters.
The story takes place a thousand years after a great war known as “The Seven Days of Fire”. Much of Earth is now covered with toxic jungles inhabited by hostile insects, the most feared of which is Ohmu, reminiscent of an armoured caterpillar the size of a house. Humanity struggles to survive in scattered settlements, surrounded by nature that has nothing but harm to offer them.
One of these settlements is called the Valley of the Wind and is the home of Princess Nausicaä (Alison Lohman). Though just a teenager, Nausicaä is already showing all the signs of a leader and has her own perspective on the bleak predicament humanity is in. She refuses to view the toxic jungle as fundamentally hostile, and frequently ventures inside to explore and to study it.
Nausicaä uses a jet-powered glider to leave home and roam the jungle. As a child, I couldn’t have loved that glider more. In my eyes, her portable flying device represented freedom from the confines of everyday life and the restrictive rules that stopped me from doing what I wanted. Having my very own glider subsequently became a long-lasting childhood fantasy – whenever things weren’t quite right, I imagined I was flying away with it.
The people of the valley benefit from Nausicaä’s adventures as she also learns about the nature of the jungle that begins to show potential for a co-existence between mankind and the environment. One night, however, a massive airship from the kingdom of Tolmekia crashes into the Valley. In the wreckage, Nausicaä finds the badly wounded Princess Lastelle of Pejite, who had been taken hostage by the Tolmekians. It is revealed that the cause of conflict between the Tolmekians and the Pejites is a weapon of awesome power that was also aboard the ship.
According to what is known about the war one thousand years earlier, there were “Giant Warriors” created by man that eventually caused the apocalyptic “Seven Days of Fire”, ending civilisation. An embryo of one of these creatures has now been found, and Princess Kushana (Uma Thurman) leading the Tolmekians is determined to use the weapon to burn down the toxic jungle.
Nausicaä’s patient, scientific way to solving problems is in contrast with Princess Kushana’s military approach though. We see that studying and understanding complex issues can yield results and that long-term thinking might be better than a ‘shooting everything that moves’ strategy. Both Nausicaä and Kushana are leaders motivated by the same desire – to ensure the survival of their people. The only difference is how they want to accomplish that goal. Ultimately, director Miyazaki only ever deals with methods of leadership and doesn’t question the good will of Kushana’s character. There is no simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a compelling and truthful story that shows people fighting each other, while Miyazaki’s perspective highlights how pointless human conflict is. He makes this palpable by placing characters above the Valley looking down on the fighting. As we watch those small people engulfed in the battle, it becomes obvious that they all have the same goals and desires – yet they are fighting each other.
During the unforgettable climax, hundreds of thousands of enraged Ohmus are led deliberately towards the Valley by Pejites who kidnapped and wounded a baby Ohmu. The glowing red eyes in a menacing sea of these creatures rapidly approaching the Valley at night is the most vivid image I remember from watching the film many years ago.
Miyazaki puts the two contrasting methods of leadership to the final test in the last act. Kushana faces the Ohmus with the Giant Warrior that had to be prematurely hatched for the battle, while Nausicaä – knowing that the Ohmus are being used by the Pejites – is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for her people.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was also an early film experience that showed me that heroes can be heroines. As a young boy, I identified with Nausicaä’s ideals while I wanted to be Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite prince who turns against his own people in order to help her. Their relationship in this post-apocalyptic and yet beautiful world had a great impact on me as a child. Over the years, it became even more than that: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind still stands firmly as one of my favourite animated features of all time.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.