GLORIO goes Ghibli — Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I find it strange that the anime fandom in general seems to take Studio Ghibli for granted, seem to consider their works so undeniably excellent they’re not even worth discussing at all. That just rubs me the wrong way. Is it really true that hardcore anime fans would have nothing to say about these films? Are they so fundamentally different from the anime we identify with that they might as well be considered a wholly different beast? To answer these questions, and to fill in the gaping hole in my credibility as an anime lover that is never having seen the large majority of these movies, I have taken it onto myself to delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue and, now that the large majority of their films are streaming on Netflix*, deliver you my piping hot takes straight from the oven.

(*) … unless you live in the US, Canada or Japan, in which case you’ll have to pay for an HBO Max subscription once it launches, or pay a visit to your friendly neighbourhood home video retailer. Oops.

For this feature, I have compiled a somewhat arbitrary list of films either produced by or strongly associated with the legendary studio based on what I am personally interested in watching, as well as what is readily available to me. Purists and pedants alike may argue that Hayao Miyazaki’s first two films were not produced under the Ghibli name, but I believe that treating these films as part of the canon is integral to fully understanding and appreciating how the master’s art has evolved over the course of several decades. That means that after digging into Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro last time, I will be checking out Miyazaki’s second and first independent film…

Japanese title: Kaze no Tani no Naushika
Release date: 11 March 1984
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Synopsis

Led by their inquisitive, peace-loving princess Nausicaä, the people of the Valley of the Wind try to live in harmony with nature, even though much of their world has been rendered uninhabitable by the ever-expanding Sea of Decay, a toxic forest inhabited by gruesome, mutated insects. When a massive aircraft from the neighboring kingdom of Tolmekia crashes in the Valley, the crash’s sole survivor, princess Lastelle of Pejite, begs Nausicaä to destroy the ship’s cargo before passing away. When the Tolmekians invade the Valley the next day, Nausicaä realizes that the cargo they have come to retrieve is the embryo of a gargantuan bioweapon they plan to use to destroy the Sea of Decay. Now at the centre of a conflict that will decide the fate of the entire world, Nausicaä is forced to decide how far she’s willing to go to protect nature and the people she loves.

Aqua‘s thoughts

In these dour times, it can be helpful to sit down and think back of all the ways in which the world used to be on the brink of an apocalypse before the pandemic hit. Remember when we all thought humanity would be driven to extinction because of our own systematic abuse of the planet we’re blessed to live on? Those were the days, right, when only those waving around their graphs and their statistics and their empathy for the people on the other side of the world losing their houses because of melting ice caps got the right to be completely ignored by the people supposed to lead us. Now everyone gets to enjoy the paralyzing fear of living through the end of the world. I’m not scared that this pandemic will usher in the literal end times, don’t get me wrong, yet what does scare me is the idea that when this is all over, people won’t realize that the coronavirus didn’t make every other major world issue magically go away. This pandemic is a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity. An opportunity to open people’s eyes to the social injustice and environmental destruction that has been plaguing our planet for far longer than any coronavirus could — and an opportunity to hold those responsible accountable. And hell, is it about time for one of those.

If you’ve seen Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, I probably don’t need to tell you that it is basically an environmentalist power fantasy. It’s a tale that is unapologetically sticking it to the man who exploits the planet for his own gain. It’s a story in which the heroes are unequivocally right and the villains unequivocally wrong, and the world itself comes to our kind heroine’s assistance just to hammer home the point that she’s on the side of the angels in this conflict. This movie is so utterly convinced of its own righteousness it spits in the face of every rule thought sacred in conventional character writing, but that’s why it works. If Nausicaä herself had not been absolutely incorruptible, selfless and entirely devoid of flaws — even her furious rampage following her father’s death is framed as justified, even if it defies everything viewers thought they knew about the character up to that point — this movie as it stands would not have been as meaningful as it is now. It is only by funneling his desperate pleas through the words and deeds of what those of bad faith would call a “Mary Sue” that writer and director Hayao Miyazaki is able to properly convey his convictions.

As many a modern light novel has taught us, flawless characters are inadvertently a political statement in and by themselves — as their flawlessness makes whatever they do or say go unopposed, and therefore stripped of any and all nuance. This idea is often discussed when it comes to wish-fulfilling male heroes like Sword Art Online‘s Kirito, but it goes for female characters as well. All too often, girls in anime are portrayed as pure and innocent in service of a belief that pure and innocent is what a woman should be. Nausicaä is different, however, as her purity refers to a purity of belief, rather than a purity of behaviour. She embodies a righteous cause rather than regressive ideas — her purity does not restrict her, but allows her to fully blossom as an admirable protagonist in her own right. This is why it is important that Miyazaki shows that Nausicaä’s innocence has its limits. While her dedication to protecting her family, her friends and the creatures of the Sea of Decay is immaculate, her actions in doing so are not. The aforementioned rampage re-contextualizes what kindness means to Miyazaki — not the kind of milquetoast friendliness that is so often associated with femininity, but an unwavering, incorruptible dedication to doing good to those who need and deserve it. That makes his heroine not just a feminist power fantasy, but a radical one as well.

Nausicaä’s purity serves another purpose as well. Reading the character as a messianic archetype is such a popular interpretation that Disney based their dub around it, but the beliefs she espouses in the film hew more closely to the animistic tenets of Shinto, especially the idea that objects, places and creatures all possess a spiritual essence, or, to quote Nausicaä herself, “god […] lives in the smallest leaf and the smallest insect”. This doesn’t necessarily make Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind a religious movie, but it does humanize its message. Miyazaki’s love for nature isn’t strictly rational — as in, we need to protect nature because we are a part of it — there is a spiritual aspect to it, too, that stresses its purity. We do not associate purity with reason, after all. It’s a sentiment that is often invoked as a part of pleas to return to the “ways of old”, but even based on a single movie, calling it conservative would be a violation of the truth. Whatever time this movie doesn’t spend on hammering home the point that nature is good and imperialism is bad, it spends on stressing that these beliefs needn’t be equated with a dislike for technology and what it allows us to achieve. All too often, nostalgia for the “ways of old” is ignorant of the repressive hierarchies of yesteryear. No, grandpa, our glory days as a species are not over just because you think people were nicer to you in the fifties. Nausicaä’s “ways of old”, on the other hand, are revisionist in nature. The past they harken back to is genuinely more just, more peaceful, more emancipatory than the present, and it can be, because this is a fantasy world we’re talking about. Yet for our world to get to the point Nausicaä’s used to be at, we’d actually need progress.

Now that we are talking about ideology anyways, going back to the inspiration for Nausicaä’s character might help convince you of the fact that I am not just making all of this up. You don’t just call a character “Nausicaä” without intentionally referring to Homer’s Odyssey, in which Nausicaä is a Paeacian (modern-day Corfu) princess who encounters Odysseus after he is shipwrecked. Stripped of his clothes, Odysseus approaches Nausicaä as she is washing clothes, scaring away her handmaidens. The princess, however, is unafraid and offers to help the bewildered hero, causing Homer to sing the praises of her kindness and courage, being willing to help a shady-looking stranger, rather than being turned off by his unsightly appearance. I am mostly bringing this up just so I can share with you the anecdote of my high school Greek teacher wanting to liven up his sessions on the Nausicaä sections of the Odyssey with some pictures, only to be puzzled when his Google search only turned up images of some anime girl, but you get the point, right?

The name Nausicaä, however, is a double-edged sword. It stands for purity and motherhood, but as a result — at least in the case of Homer’s Nausicaä — for the virtues to be upheld by women at the time as well. A big tree attracts the woodsman’s axe, as they say, so it’s no surprise that some critics see Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, clad in baby blue and graced with the dulcet voice of Sumi Shimamoto, not as a genuinely empowered heroine, but as little more than the manifestation of Miyazaki’s obsession with innocence, her flawlessness not serving to applaud her convictions, but to set an impossible and ultimately rather traditionally feminine ideal actual girls and women can’t ever hope to achieve. I personally disagree, but it does merit some thought — isn’t it true that Nausicaä’s design and portrayal, especially when compared to her “shadow” Kushana, affirms, rather than averts, the traits straight men find attractive in girls? Gosh, let’s not even mention the can of worms that is Kushana’s whole existence in this film essentially equating humanity with the possession of an abled, flesh-and-bone body. Ugh. Let’s be honest. I’m not going to fault an almost forty years old movie for adhering to the most basic of basic storytelling conventions. Yet the fact that I’m even considering picking this nit honestly only speaks to its strengths.

And of those, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has plenty. If there were any other way in which this movie could be compared to the Odyssey, it would be that they’ve both been incredibly influential on pretty much everything its culture would go on to produce after. Popular Fantasies, both of the older Final and the newer Granblue variety, owe their aesthetic to this movie. Daisy Ridley’s Rey, from the recent Star Wars movies, is a dead ringer for Nausicaä, up to and including her perceived flawlessness. Finally, there’s the Giant Warriors, whom I could credit with inspiring the titular monstrosities from Neon Genesis Evangelion if it weren’t for the fact that the sequence in which they most prominently appear was animated by Hideaki Anno himself. Yet what ultimately makes this movie’s designs, its setting, its overal presentation so memorable is the story they are used to tell. An individual part of a film can rarely be iconic when the context surrounding it isn’t just as iconic in its own right. In the end, its rousing themes of environmentalism and emancipation are the lynchpin of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, without which its timeless artwork, imaginative vistas and poignant soundtrack would just be splendid parts of an incoherent whole. Because everything is so neatly tied together, however, this movie serves as the perfect example of the effortless perfection Miyazaki’s works are known for, and given the fact that it’s only his second one, I can’t wait to find out how he’ll improve from here.

Next time, Glorio goes Ghibli finally lives up to its name, as I delve into the studio’s debut production, a movie that popularized the steampunk genre and inspired the name of a cryptocurrency —yes, seriously— 1986’s Castle in the Sky!

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