First, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, and even though he has made similar announcements in the past only to come back with another animated masterpiece, his deteriorating vision makes this announcement seem very serious. Then, there was another announcement, in which it seemed like the legendary Japanese animation studio co-founded by Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, was going to be closing for good. In reality, the announcement referred to the studio making cutbacks and taking a break to reassess itself now that their lead creative voice was retiring, but it nevertheless seems like the end of an era. Finally, I saw Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, an animated marvel and one of the best movies of the year.
All of this made me think it was time to take a deep look at the studio’s legacy. I must say that while I have seen (and loved) many Ghibli movies, I am far from an expert. There are a lot of Ghibli movies that I simply haven’t seen (including the one I plan to write about in this post), and I know relatively little about the studio’s history. However, I’m more than willing to learn about it, and very excited to be immersing myself in these animated adventures. This is why I’m starting this retrospective series, in which I will take a look, one by one, at every movie released by Studio Ghibli; starting right now with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind…
…which is already in and on itself a little problematic, because Studio Ghibli didn’t really exist at the time Nausicaä was released. I will write more about the founding of the studio on the entry in this series, but for now it is important to know that, once the Studio took flight, the movie was retroactively considered part of the Ghibli canon, and has been included in many retrospectives and home video box-sets. So, tehcnically, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not a Studio Ghibli movie, and yet, I think it is essential to talk about the movie if you want to talk about Ghibli as a studio, and especially, if you want to talk about Hayao Miyazaki as an artist. For Nausicaä is not only a quintessential Miyazaki movie, but the first of its kind.
Miyazaki had directed one movie before this (Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro) as well as an animated television series (Future Boy Conan), but it wasn’t until Nausicaä that he emerged as the auteur that we are now familiar with. Here’s how it happened: in the early eighties, Miyazaki didn’t have a job in animation, and so, he decided to turn to his focus to another visual medium: manga. He started writing a very complicated series, set in a post-apocalyptic world where the remaining humans must live in a world full of poisoned gas and giant insects. “I had a lot of time to myself, so I tried to make a comic that couldn’t be made into animation.” he has been quoted as saying in an interview, so, of course, there would come a moment in which he would have been approached to turn his own manga into a feature film.
The manga wasn’t even finished (Miyazaki would keep writing it until 1994, ten years after the movie was finished), but the director decided to find some sort of resolution for the first sixteen volumes of the series, and adapt his own seemingly unadaptable work. The result is a movie that, quite simply, looks far better than anything else that was going on in animation at the time. To put this in context: we’ve gone a couple of decades now hearing that animation is much more than just cartoons for children, and even then some people refuse to take it seriously. Now, imagine what it must have been like to go to an animated movie in 1984, and realizing that there was this group of filmmakers who were willing to position that animation could, and should, be taken seriously. That the beauty of painting and movement could not only be captured on the screen, but inform the story that was being told. Imagine going into the theatre and seeing this:
This doesn’t look like a cartoon. This was the time of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This was the time when Mr. T had an animated series airing on Saturday mornings. Nausicaä is none of that. This is a movie that carefully designed, carefully painted, carefully animated. This isn’t a product, this is a work of art. Being based on his own work -a work that he wrote with absolute artistic freedom nonetheless-, Miyazaki was putting something of himself in the movie. He was telling a personal story. Not that he wasn’t trying to do his best in his previous work, but this is a whole other level. This is the moment when an auteur found his voice.
Now, let’s talk a little about the movie’s plot. Because for all its technical marvel, and its revolutionary design, Nausicaä is, somehow, not a particularly great story. The movie can be very easily categorized within a specific type of movie that developed in the eighties. I don’t think there is a specific word to describe this genre, but you can easily recognize it when you see it. These movies looked at classic legends about knights and wizards, and set them in fantasy worlds with futuristic elements. These are not exactly Star Wars knock-offs, but they’re clearly influenced by that movie, especially in their position of an underdog force of good fighting a technologically superior enemy.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of these movies. Its protagonist, Nausicaä, is a princess who lives with the seemingly pacifist people of the Valley of the Wind. A group of humans living with medieval technology except for certain futuristic objects (such as Nausicaä glider, which allows her to soar the skies). She must fight against a bigger, stronger empire, which has far superior wartime technology at its disposal, and that shows very little respect for the world around them, especially the giant insect monsters that inhabit the “toxic jungle”. Nausicaä also seems to be highly influenced by Star Wars in some of its design.
Now, the truth is that there are thousands of hundreds of movies that were influenced by Star Wars, it’s just the kind of thing that happens when a movie becomes such a huge cultural phenomenon as George Lucas’s space opera. As such, Nausicaä is definitely one of the better movies to have used the Star Wars template, and make something original and meaningful with it. And the reason why is Miyazaki’s personal involvement, and the fact that he was able to make a movie about the themes that are most dear to him.
In fact, one can find all the themes and visuals associated with Miyazaki in this movie. There is a clear environmental message, a strong female protagonist, a villain who is not as much evil as she is a character with a different ideology, and extended sequences that revel in the magic of flight. These elements are all there, and most of them work, it’s just that they’re not quite as impressive when you compare them to what would come later in the director’s career. (An element that I find particularly weak is the complexity of the characters. Nausicaä in particular, who is too perfect, and does always the right thing, even when she makes stupid decisions).
To wrap things out, what I’m trying to say is that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a pretty solid movie. It is not as great as some of the stuff that Studio Ghibli, and MIyazaki in particular, would make in later years, but it works. And it is a hugely important film on so many levels. Not only for the growth of Miyazaki as an artist, and for the possibility of the creation of Studio Ghibli as it exists today, but for the world and history of animation as a whole.
Up Next: The first movie that was actually produced by Studio Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki’s dubiously titled (for those who speak Spanish) Laputa: Castle in the Sky.