Acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki is now best known for his smash hit movies aimed at children, such as My Neighbour Totoro, or Ponyo On A Cliff By The Sea. But back in the early 80s, Miyazaki’s name in Japan was synonymous with epic sweeping fantasy and arguably the film that cemented his reputation was Nausicaä of The Valley Of The Wind.
Released in 1984, Nausicaä tells the story of a young eponymous princess who must defend her valley from attack by the warmongering Tolmekians, against a backdrop of a civilisation that has utterly collapsed. The world is in ruin. War has devastated the planet and created a vast Toxic Jungle that spews poisonous spores into the air and is guarded by huge mutated insects. The Tolmekians have discovered a Giant Warrior – a living weapon of death which centuries ago brought about the Seven Days of Fire that ravaged the world – and they are intent on burning the forest with it.
Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind may be early Miyazaki in his film career but many of his classic tropes are present. Nausicaä herself is a strong-willed female lead who battles to save her people. She can fight, yes, but she also has a scientific mind. Our characterisation is front and centre as the movie opens with her venturing into the toxic forest and taking samples, despite all the apparent danger. As the wider world is slowly unfurled to the audience, Nausicaä’s self-confidence and straight arrow vision is a guide through it.
There are some issues with Nausicaä. The plot feels like an epic tale squished into a relatively short run time, with extraneous world details oozing out through the edges. This is true, considering the source manga (also written and drawn by Miyazaki) is far larger than the events covered in the movie. So we open with plenty of scenes that work hard to set up the world, only to abandon a lot of it for a mid-section that suddenly slows right down. The action packed finale, whilst satisfying, presumes that all the grand universe with its apparent prophecy (mentioned once early on and not again) landed with any weight, which doesn’t really happen.
That said, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind is a breathtaking piece of work. Its sweeping ambition is all over the screen. From the joyous depiction of flight with Nausicaä’s jet assisted glider through to the toxic forest that teems with odd life. The forest, much like most of the movie, is an early Miyazaki struggling to come to terms with themes that permeate most of his movies: pacifism in the face of aggression; technology versus nature; and the sustainability of environmentalism. The forest may be lethal but, by keeping people out, it also acts as the planet’s antidote to humanity’s historic poisoning of the soil. Miyazaki would return to this theme with Princess Mononoke with more subtly later.
Significant praise must also be laid at the feet of composer Joe Hisaishi. His score imbues the movie with all the grand scale that the events themselves struggle with. His beautiful uplifting theme with wind-like sweeping strings makes everything seem so tangible and real among all the fantasy. The action sequences confusingly tend to devolve into 80s synth computer game music which ages the movie considerably, but aside from that it is a masterpiece of work.
I have seen Nausicaä of The Valley Of The Wind many times and can safely say it is one of my all time favourite films. It’s beautiful, powerful, emotional, and amazing. It’s not without flaws, but the ambition and delivery is so breathtaking that these can be forgiven. It feels like this has been said endlessly of Miyazaki films, but Nausicaä is often ranked as one of the best animated movies of all time. It is not technically a Ghibli movie but the financial success of it directly led to Miyazaki setting up Studio Ghibli immediately thereafter and so it sits proudly in the collection: the cause of so much joyous filmmaking to come.
Words by Michael Record