Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind directed by Hayao Miyazaki
After an event alluded to as the Seven Days of Fire, civilization as we know has been destroyed and humanity’s remaining population scattered into isolated communities. Most of the globe is overrun by toxic jungles that produce spores deadly to human beings, and explorers must use gas-masks to protect themselves whenever they venture out into the wilderness.
Added danger comes from the insect life that now dominates the earth, particularly those known as the Ohmu. They look rather like giant pill-bugs with bulbous eyes that change colour depending on their moods, and it is their corpses that produce the poisonous spores that make life so difficult for what remains of humanity.
In this dangerous new world there are only a few pockets of civilization left; cities such as Torumekia and Pejite which are constantly at war with each other, and the Valley of the Wind, favourably located to take advantage of the wind from the sea. Not only does it keep the poisonous spores from settling, but it powers the windmills that supply water and energy to the farming community.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind begins when Lord Yupa, a master swordsman, runs into the eponymous Princess Nausicaä on his way back to the Valley. Yupa claims that he’s trying to unravel the mysteries of the eco-system, though there are rumours he’s searching for the subject of a prophecy: “a person clad in blue standing in a golden field that will find the bond between humanity and the earth, and lead the people to a pure land.”
That night an airship crash-lands in the Valley, attacked by a swarm of infuriated insects. Nausicaä uses her glider to try and help, only to find a young girl in handcuffs thrown clear of the destroyed ship. With her dying breath she gives Nausicaä a message: “burn the cargo.”
The war-like Torumekians arrive to reclaim their ship, garrisoning the Valley while they’re at it. Nausicaä soon learns that their mysterious cargo is a weapon they claim can obliterate the toxic jungle and take back the world for humanity — though the neighbouring Pejites are horrified at the thought of such a dangerous weapon in the hands of their enemies, and are fully prepared to sacrifice the Valley in order to destroy it once and for all.
With Nausicaä taken hostage and the Valley endangered from humans and insects alike, it all comes down to discovering the symbiotic nature of the ecological system to prevent further destruction from taking place.
As you can probably see from this summary (and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what actually goes on) this is a very dense film in terms of its world-building and character development, and at times you get the sense that you’re watching only a very small part of a much larger story. That’s unsurprising considering the story was originally conceived as a long-running manga series, which naturally had more time to delve into the politics and biology that can only exist in broad strokes here.
But it still remains an engrossing and sophisticated film, with a strong female protagonist, anti-war and environmentalist themes, and a conflict that’s depicted in varying shades of grey. What passes for the film’s antagonists all have good reasons for doing what they do, and though “protecting my own people at all costs” might not totally justify their actions, it does make them understandable.
But it is the character of Nausicaä that headlines this movie from start to finish, and I wish there were more female characters like her in the world. She’s efficient, cool-headed, intelligent and compassionate, and her heroism is not based on being a warrior but a peacemaker. I’m certain that she at least partially inspired the new female heroine of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as there are more than a few similarities between Nausicaä and Rey.
The film boasts animation that beautifully captures fantastical animals, foreign landscapes and the exhilaration of flying, but also some of the more mundane aspects of life: children playing, windmills turning and farmers ploughing their fields. One of the best things about Miyazaki’s films is their ability to create wonder out ordinary events, and that’s very much the case here.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a good place for newcomers to start exploring Miyazaki’s body of work. Though the soundtrack can get a bit heavy-handed at times, it epitomizes everything that’s exciting and creative and memorable about his films.