Screen & Page: Brave The Toxic Jungle In ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or films that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
Nausicaa is included in the Studio Ghibli catalog, but Ghibli didn't actually exist until after Nausicaa's production. Instead, Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and Ghibli co-founder/acclaimed director Isao Takahata turned to minor studio Topcraft (best known for the original Thundercats) for production. Working from the sixteen manga chapters Miyazaki had published at that point (see below), they finished the film in nine months for its 1984 release.
Such fast turnaround is remarkable when considering how assured, confident and beautiful Nausicaa is. From the very beginning, as you see a hooded figure ride on an ostrich-horse into a deserted town, this movie knows exactly what it looks like and what it is. For my entire adult life, post-apocalyptic movies have been huge, but not a one looks as lush or distinctive as Nausicaa.
In this particular post-apocalyptic landscape, the world is largely overrun by toxic spore-filled jungles inhabited by giant bugs called Ohm. Humanity has fled to a scattered few nation-states. One of those is the peaceful, spore-free Valley of the Wind.
The Valley's princess, Nausicaa, loves exploring the jungle on her glider, and is even fond of the monstrous Ohm. But her love of exploring and her hope for human coexistence with the jungle is put to the test when a foreign plane carrying both a captured princess and a mythical monster called a Giant Warrior crashes in the Valley. Nausicaa's skills are put to the test against an invasion by the brutal Princess Kushana of Tolmekia, and on a journey that will change the world.
On top of its ever-timely message of environmental protection, this movie is just plain gorgeous. In a scene where Nausicaa, Kushana, and others wind up landing an aircraft on an acid lake deep in the toxic jungle, the surface is so still and beautiful that my jaw drops every time. I can't believe that's not only not a photograph, but something human beings actually drew by hand.
Considering Miyazaki personally drew many of the frames in his films, it's not surprising that you feel him in the finished product. Even this early on, Miyazaki has a definite authorial voice. It's one of astonishment and joy at the natural world; one of concern at what we're doing to the planet and to each other, and ultimately one of hope for the future (despite Miyazaki's increased pessimism with age). Although the ending is a bit rushed, its message --- that there is hope for humanity, however slim --- is still a powerful one.
There's one section of the film where Miyazaki's voice flees the screen. The sequence of the nightmarish Giant Warrior roaring to life was --- as a fascinating Japanese TV documentary included on Disney's Nausicaa DVD/Blu-Ray details --- animated almost entirely by Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hidekai Anno. As expected, Anno's distinct style wrests control of the film and plops in some real horror. It echoes the horror of seeing the EVA-1 go berserk, though this film is much more coherent and concrete than anything Evangelion-related.
Nausicaa was actually released in America in 1985, in a horrible recut made to be a kid's action movie that deemphasized Nausicaa's role considerably. Known as Warriors of the Wind, it persisted on home video for about a decade before blissfully fading out of existence. In 2005, as part of their overall deal with Ghibli, Disney released a dub of the actual film.
Now this wasn't Miyazaki's first film --- that would be his 1979 Lupin III film The Castle of Cagliostro. But Nausicaa feels like a first novel, full of passion and drive. Miyazaki makes you care about everyone in this movie: about Nausicaa, the ostensible bad guys, Princess Kushana and Kurotowa, adventurous prince Asbel, and even the many old soldiers who follow Nausicaa on her journey. At just a shade over two hours, Miyazaki etches out a corner of this epic world and makes you invested in everyone in it.
This film is also Miyazaki's first collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, and the man delivers. However, this score is very of its time; synthesizers and drum machines are everywhere. That's not a bad thing, but it's noticeably different from Hisashi's lush orchestral scores for other Ghibli films.
Like most in the anime industry, the young Miyazaki also pursued a manga career. By 1979 and The Castle of Cagliostro, he already had three completed titles under his belt. Approached by Suzuki, at the time an editor for magazine Animage, Miyazaki eventually wound up agreeing to make a manga for the magazine on the condition that it wouldn't be made into a film (at least, not without his involvement, presumably).
Published monthly in Animage from February 1982, Nausicaa was a huge hit. Huge enough for Miyazaki to take long hiatuses between chapters for movie productions. The story finally concluded in March 1994. By then, Miyazaki had made Nausicaa and four other movies.
Reading the story in Viz Media's handsome Editor's Choice editions (updated from the original Studio Proteus translations), it's remarkable the series never loses its way even as it expands the movie's world considerably and darkens as it goes along. In the end, the Nausicaa manga becomes a Japanese answer to Lord of the Rings. It makes the film, as good as it is, feel very small by comparison. The film's characters get more dimension and scale as their world is explored.
Instead of being a small nation suddenly invaded by the Torumekian (as it's transliterated in the Viz books) army, the Valley of the Wind and other small nations on the Periphery of the Torumekian Empire are its vassals, sworn to send soldiers off to war with the monk-warriors of the Dorok Empire. Nausicaa still clashes with Kushana and Kurotowa, but they wind up becoming reluctant allies with her and Asbel. Not only that, we get far more about the twisted Torumekian royal family, and more insight into the old soldiers Nausicaa commands. Nausicaa also turns out to have telepathy with humans and insects, which is how a lot of important reveals get conveyed.
The Doroks, led by the insane Emperor's Brother, turn out to have ties to the dawn of the Sea of Corruption (as the Toxic Jungle is called here) and unleash some terrifying bioweaponry that seems to doom the rest of the planet. But Nausicaa and her allies wind up prevailing and uncovering not only the origins of the Seven Days of Fire, but why humanity allowed such great pollution to overtake the planet in the first place.
In all, it's not as upbeat an ending as the film. This is not a happy story with easy answers. Although goals are achieved, the world isn't saved. It's a solemn ending for such an epic adventure. It's no surprise that, after finishing this, Miyazaki began work on Princess Mononoke. Both works are in the same mindset: great mourning and alarm. They're also shockingly graphic.
Still, though, if anyone's sufficiently intrigued enough by the film to go further, the manga is well worth exploring. Stylistically, it's vastly different from other manga, drawn in monochrome pencil and inked in sparse sepia tones. It feels very intimate, if at times hard to follow due to cluttered small panels. Still, there's a good balance of humor and horror throughout, and the pages flow very naturally.
The Editor's Choice editions come with gorgeous pull-out posters of Nausicaa as well as fully annotated maps. It's not as widely known as its film counterpart, but Nausicaa is a manga for the ages. It's a love letter to manga and the world, and a reminder that both things can be better if we only take the time.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is widely available on DVD & Blu-Ray. The Nausicaa manga is available in print from Viz.com, other retailers and your local library.