For Flickfeast’s Sci-Fi Month I have been taking a second look at what is perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s only true science fiction feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was released on a U.S. regionfree Blu-ray in March 2011. It is based on Miyazaki’s manga magnum opus of the same title; the only comic book he has made. The comic is epic in achievement as well as in action, and much more detailed than the animated movie, which covers just under a third of the comic, with its own particular ending appended. The comic was actually created in order to provide a background for the movie, which was proposed first, but rejected because the financial backers felt that it would be too difficult to market without an accompanying comic book. The book quickly became a big success, and that led directly to the green-lighting of the animated movie. The comic book continued to be published after the movie came out, and the complete saga comes to some 1088 pages. The movie version, even though it is superficial compared to the comic, is even so a rare masterpiece.
The setting is sometime in the far future. Humanity’s disregard for the environment has polluted the world (it is hinted that there used to be nuclear and chemical warfare), and as a result the planet has been fighting back by evolving a range of huge, powerful and poisonous plants and animals (mainly insects). It’s an evolutionary arms race kicked into high gear, and human beings have lost their erstwhile superiority over nature and now have to fight hard to survive. In the world of the movie, there are three human cultures (there are several additional ones in the comic). Two of them are at war, both with each other and with the environment. The poisonous plants and animals live in the Sea of Decay, and it is spreading via spores to larger and larger areas. Not far from the Sea of Decay lies the Valley of the Wind, home to the third human culture, which is a pastoral community that does its utmost to live in harmony with nature.
Nausicaä, a young woman in her early twenties, is daughter to the leader of the Valley of the Wind, and hence a princess. She is the greatest warrior of the Valley, but she also epitomizes the values of her culture, having an almost preternatural affinity for her world. It turns out that she is actually a self-taught scientist, collecting samples of the life forms from the Sea of Decay in order to understand them. And understand them she does. She has discovered that the life forms respond in kind to positive and negative attitudes. Violence makes them enraged, and kindness makes them jovial and friendly. She has also discovered that the life forms act as catalysts for the chemical poisons left in the earth by human warfare, filtering it and rendering it harmless. She alone understands that the terrifying life forms that the two war-faring cultures are trying to destroy, are actually essential to the healing of the ravaged world. Accordingly, Nausicaä treats the noxious life forms with complete tenderness, and is devastated whenever anyone fails to do likewise.
It seems like naive nature romanticism, but the movie’s universe is much more complex than that. It’s a symbolical representation of the real world, where nature’s boons are indeed the foundation for sustainable living, and where the uncontrolled and unconscionable release of man-made compounds into our environment has disastrous consequences. Nausicaä herself not only represents science; her character is also rife with the extreme wonder and appreciation that should be the proper consequence of scientific knowledge about our natural environment. She loves her world so much that she wants to join with it, and she even cherishes those diseases that come from human contact with the poisonous plants. She sees the beauty of it all, and her sentiments touch all those around her, making them feel more at peace with their world.
The story itself follows Nausicaä as she is caught up in the wars of the other two cultures, which ultimately leads to an invasion of the Valley of the Wind. The movie spends at least as much time exploring the world as it does telling a story, and this is how I like it. Very often, in both science fiction and fantasy, it is the strange setting that is the real main character, and which it is interesting to explore. What resonates here is the relationship – essentially a romance – between Nausicaä and her world. There is a sharp contrast indeed between the horrifically toxic environment and the young woman who cherishes it with all the serenity of her heart. This is real lump-in-the-throat territory; Nausicaä is like a joyous splash of pure cool water and resolute protectiveness in an arid landscape of stifling heat and ever-present encroaching danger. It is one of the most subtle descriptions of love I have ever witnessed.
You will discover more layers in this movie every time you see it. I was only moderately impressed the first time I saw it, but after having watched the recent Blu-ray release I am in complete awe of the beauty and emotion of this heroine and setting, which fit the sensibility of Miyazaki’s art style so magnificently that it is plain the two must have been co-developed. I have read part of the comic many years ago, but I see now that I absolutely have to get the whole saga. It is a major science fiction work, and the movie is, in my opinion, far and away Miyazaki’s best.
This Blu-ray release (also including a Region 1 DVD) has an admirably cleaned-up picture, making the movie look better than ever. It also has the new English-language soundtrack made for the 2005 DVD release, consisting of very impressive names, from Patrick Stewart to Uma Thurman and Mark Hamill. English dubbing on Japanese animated movies is usually not great, but this one is better than one would expect. Patrick Stewart especially gives it every bit as much concentration as he would any serious project, adding considerable gravitas to the proceedings. Still, the English dubbing is not perfect, and doesn’t feel as authentic as does the Japanese one in combination with English subtitles. Translations often aim at a younger audience, thus sadly losing essential layers of story and character. One example is that, when an airship is flying overhead early in the movie, the Japanese voice of Nausicaä (subtitled in English) says “They’re not flying right”, whereas in the English dubbing this has become, simply, “They’re in trouble”. Hence the original reference to the rather significant fact that Nausicaä is an intuitive expert in aerial maneuvering gets lost for no good reason, which is a pity. Conclusion: English dubbing of foreign animated movies still has a ways to go before being on par. For now, connoisseurs will continue to prefer the original Japanese voices.
Extra material on the new release includes a great and very informative “Birth of Studio Ghibli” documentary which demonstrates just how influential the animation studio’s movies have been in Japan. There’s also a neat featurette about the English voice actors, and then some original Japanese trailers and TV spots. The Blu-ray disc also has a great interactive map of Nausicaä’s world, a Studio Ghibli Trivia Challenge, and the original storyboards for the movie. Altogether a pretty damn superlative package which I believe it is quite appropriate to call definitive. An absolute gem.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Voice cast: (Japanese: ) Sumi Shimamoto, Goro Naya, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Mugihito and others. (English:) Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Mark Hamill and others.
Runtime: 112 min.