Miyazaki May: “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”

It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

Of all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the one that I least remembered was “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” Upon revisiting, I rediscovered a gem that, while containing some unmistakable Miyazaki traits, also does some things that help it to stand alone in his body of work.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the human population has been wiped out by poisonous gases created by the Ohm, a giant race of insects. Pockets of humanity survive in a few remaining kingdoms left on earth. One of those kingdoms is the valley of the wind, and Nausicaa is the princess of the kingdom. But unrest grows as tensions rise between the neighboring kingdoms of Tolmekia and Pejite, as humanity races to find a way to wipe out the Ohm and their toxic jungle once and for all.

The primary strength of this film is the character of Nausicaa, one of Miyazaki’s strongest heroes and one of the greatest heroines in movie history. Nausicaa is a pacifist and a Snow White type who loves all of creation, even the parts of it that have killed most of humanity. She struggles to find a way to make peace with the Ohm without wiping out the toxic jungle. She can be soft-spoken but has that prototypical Miyazaki-an courage in the face of adversity. In some ways, she is a Messianic figure (a trait the movie itself makes perfectly clear), but she is far from perfect; her challenges and struggles always remain relatable. This ain’t your typical Disney princess. In fact, one could argue that Nausicaa is a strong feminist heroine fighting against the Disney stereotype of passivity.

Miyazaki populates the film with his usual cast of odd and interesting characters, but the most memorable is the film’s “villain”, Kushana, princess of Tolmekia. I use quotation marks because “Nausicaa” exemplifies one of the grandest Miyazaki themes: no one is beyond corruption, and all are capable of redemption. Many of his films do not contain traditional “bad guys,” or, if they do, they are not so bad by movie’s end. Kushana exemplifies the other end of the princess spectrum; someone who always solves her problems with violence.  She has never known anything else. Even if she doesn’t exactly have a redemptive moment on-screen, it’s easy to see that encountering Nausicaa is forcing her to re-consider her way of looking at the world. The same can be said for the destructive Ohm, who come to their own understanding about humanity. I despise cheap villains in movies who seem to exist simply to give something the protagonist to fight against and this is something that Miyazaki refreshingly avoids almost universally.

The animation here is typically excellent, particularly on the Ohm, which is some of the coolest creature design I’ve seen. The fact that these awe-inspiring insects were created in the 1980’s, using hand-drawn animation, is a true testament to the power and endurance of the art form. Miyazaki also uses some experimental styles during a flashback sequence.

The score is provided by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and a Miyazaki film is never complete without one of his soul-stirring renditions. “Nausicaa” finds Hisaishi at his most experimental, utilizing more synthesized sounds and vocals, along with his traditional amazing piano work. I’m not sure his work was ever this consistently surprising in any other Miyazaki film. If you’re not familiar with his work, look it up on Spotify right now. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” finds Miyazaki working with some of his grandest and most enduring themes: pacifism and environmentalism. These themes are never obvious or on-the-nose, never politicized, never bludgeoned into the audience’s brains. Miyazaki never treats his audience like children, and one could argue that his films are not really meant for children anyway. This film is what I like to call a low-key great movie; it doesn’t exude the immediate awesomeness of some of Miyazaki’s later work, but that doesn’t make it any less of a triumph. Don’t allow this one to be overlooked in favor of some of the famed animator’s well-known works.