Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1984)

2. NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind
Kaze no tani no Naushika / Warriors of the Wind

After the artistic, if not box office, success of “The Castle of Cagliostro,” Miyazaki went back to directing television for a while, including the well-regarded “Sherlock Hound” series. However, it’s clear that Miyazaki was saving his best ideas for himself. When the director couldn’t raise interest in a feature film, he decided to tell his story as a manga series first. “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” was popular enough on the printed page that a theatrical adaptation became plausible. Though the film was released before the official creation of the studio, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” would retroactively be declared the first Studio Ghibli film and would also be Miyazaki’s first great creative breakthrough.

Set a thousand years after an apocalyptic cataclysm, the remaining groups of humanity have gathered in different kingdoms. The world is threatened by a roving cloud of poison gas and humans have to live along side giant insects. Nausicaa, the princess of a village that lives in the legendary Valley of the Wind, quickly becomes embroiled in a conflict between two warring kingdoms to manipulate the fearsome, caterpillar-like Ohmus and resurrected the giant creature that scourged the Earth a thousand years ago.

An issue facing every fantasy film is whether or not it can convincingly create an invented world on-screen. Some films get bogged down in exposition or are overly derivative of older works. “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” creates a beautifully realized universe that isn’t quite like anything before or since. The film is vague about whether or not it takes place on Earth or some other fantastic film. We merely know that something horrible happened millennia ago and the world still reels from those events. This is a post-industrial world, with some technology from the old way of living still left over. The aircrafts that exist seem cobbled together from old scrap metal. Yet they don’t look like anything from our modern day life. The technology on-screen, from Nausicaa’s glider to the hot air balloon carrying the infant Ohmu, is unique and innovative.

The infrastructure of the world of “Nausicaa” is fascinating. The film begins with a spellbinding sequence of Nausicaa flying through the poisoned lands, crawling into an abandoned structure. Once inside, she climbs a giant Ohmu skeleton. She cuts away the lens of the creature eyes, carrying it around like a large glass umbrella. The poisoned ravaged lands are only one part of the world. Beneath the arid desert is a petrified forest. Giant crystal trees reach up to the surface, the area almost oppressively white, water running inside the hollow shells. The different kingdoms warring for control of the God Warrior is more typical fantasy troupes. Those that live in the valley are peaceful. The Tolmekins are a warring culture, constantly in conflict with the similarly hot-headed Peijite. The competing cultures are less interesting than the varied, fascinating world they inhabited.

As with any Miyazaki film, an astonishing amount of work went into breathing life into the character’s live. Look at the little details in each character. Nausicaa carries around a ceramic sword. She doesn’t pry the Ohmu lens off with that blade though. Instead, she encircles it with black powder and ignites it with the flint on her rifle. The rifle, obviously patterned after old flintlocks, is ornately detailed, with gold lines running up the barrel. Similarly, the villain Kushana pulls a hand gun at one point that is lovingly detailed with personal decoration. Nausicaa wails on some bad guys with a whip-like hammer and charms giant insects with a spinning whistle. Everything in the film was designed with the love and care people which quickly came to be associate with the director.

One of my favorite things about the movie are those big bugs. The Ohmus are the most feared of the insects and the one humanity has the most difficult relationship with. They resemble a cross between caterpillars and prehistoric trilobites, creating more than a passing resemble to Mothra’s larva form. Their bodies undulate as they move, which is a surprisingly fascinating choice. Multiple eyes dot their forehead which glow bright red when the animals are enraged. The Ohmus’ uneasy tempers form a major plot point and their buffalo-like tendency to stampede makes them a serious threat. Long, thin legs scurry in front and back, preventing the huge insects from being too cute or likable. Other big bugs are glanced throughout the film. Pink flying insects have pulsating fibers on their skin and buzz through the air. At one point, Nausicaa has to rescue her love interest from a huge dragon fly-like creatures with large pincers in front of its month. In another scene, she carelessly bounds over a pair of big ants, the bugs milling about unborthered. Insects are frequently left out of most fantasy scenarios and its nice to see such memorable creations presented here.

While “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” creates a vivid world, what is most endearing about the film is its title protagonist. Nausicaa is openly refereed to as a princess throughout the film. Like the princesses of Disney’s animated films, Nausicaa is friends to all animals. She has an intuitive understanding of animal behavior. She’s especially good at calming the moody Ohmus. When presented with a wild fox-squirrel, a proto-Pokemon looking critter, the furry thing hisses at her first, biting her finger. Immediately afterwards, Nausicaa makes friends with the creature and it accompanies her throughout the rest of the movie. Yet she’s hardly an inactive princess. Nausicaa is a warrior too. When her father is killed by the invading Tolmekian soldiers, she launches into action, beating them back while acrobatically leaping through the air. But Nausicaa is a pacifist and hates conflict. She quickly gives into the invaders’ demands simply because it means no further lives will be lost. That cool head sees her through the film’s conflict. Her dedication to non-violence keeps her focus on minimizing causalities. She heads into danger because it means saving lives. Nausicaa isn’t a bland hero though. She has heart, thoughts, doubts, an inner life. She’s the first of many fully realized female heroes Miyazaki would create.

Mentioned early in the film is a prophecy that a hero clad in blue with save the world. Observant viewers will notice that the riding jacket Nausicaa wears throughout is blue. Unlike a lot of modern blockbusters that are stuck on the idea of the prophesied chosen one, “Nausicaa” is not bogged down by mythic expectations. The prophecy is only mentioned twice, at the beginning and the end. Nausicaa undergoes the Hero’s Journey in broad strokes. She dies at the end only to rise again but without the heavy-handed Christ connotations. While trading in stock story decisions, the film’s heart and focus on characterization and detail keeps these aspects from being overbearing.

While better categorized as an adventure, “Nausicaa” is an action movie too. The action in “Castle of Cagliostro” was impressive but Miyazaki exceeds his earlier work here. While being escorted from her village in the Tolmekian airship, Peijite forces attack. The aerial shootout that follows is beautifully animated. The camera swoops around the planes, creating a sense of speed and urgency. The daring escape that follows has the heroine forcing an inactive airplane out of a burning dock, which seriously ratchets up the suspense. Another stand-out action sequence also involves an airplane. Enemy forces work their way onto a Peijite airship. While her godfather fights off soldiers with his impressive swordsmanship, Nausicaa is pushed out of an airlock for her own safety, potential love interest Asbel fighting off an attacker in the cargo bay.

Even during action sequences, the film pauses for moments of beauty and sincerity. The plot proper is started when a plane crashes in the Valley. Nausicaa flies in to rescue the vehicle, leading to an exciting sequence. During the speedy moment, the camera focuses in on a female face inside the plane, the same way Nausicaa does. While Asbel is firing on another airship, he pauses as Nausicaa sticks her head out. Once again, the camera swoops around the girl, a singular moment during the fire and action. Some of the movie’s most quiet moments are its most effective. Nausicaa bonds with an Ohmu at one point, encircled by the creature’s glowing, yellow tentacles. As the lyrical music plays, she is transported to a memorable moment from childhood. Nausicaa and Asbel’s time together in the petrified forest makes the bond between the youths seem genuine. Even if it features plenty of exciting action, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” knows when to make time for softer moments.

The primary theme the film concerns itself with is the affect war has on the world and on people. Both warring factions seek to own the Giant Warrior. Both seem to ignore that the same giant was responsible for plunging the world into darkness a thousand years ago. The Valley is the innocent victim caught between the two sides. The Piejite spurn on a horde of Ohmu by dangling an injured baby from a balloon. When the insects rampage through the village, hundreds of lives will be lost. The pursuit of war is characterized as greedy and selfish, done more for its own sake than anything else. The threat of actual conflict lords over the entire movie and is only slightly preferable to a second apocalypse.

The war is mostly spurned on by the Tolmiken’s desire to destroy the Toxic Jungle. Though the poison gas makes life difficult for humanity, in the course of the film we discover that the gas is nature’s response to man’s pollution. It helps filter out the poison, creating something beautiful in the process. By destroying the Toxic Jungle, the world will be plunged into an even deeper catastrophe. Ecological concerns would reoccur throughout Miyazaki’s career. “Nausicaa” takes the stance that man shouldn’t meddle with nature, that Mother Earth is far better at figuring out its own affairs. By attempting to control the path of nature, humanity is only inviting more disaster.

Though first conceived as a feature film, it’s not surprising that “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” was first released as a manga. The film tells a huge story that honestly might be too big for one film, even a 117-minute one. The middle section of the story, where alliances are made and lost, while elements of the plot shuffle around in preparation for the climax, drags a bit. The film demands a lot of attention from its viewer but even an attentive watcher might have trouble keeping track of all the characters and plot lines. “Nausicaa” certainly feels like a longer story cut down to a more manageable size and this affects the pacing from time to time.

Despite being thirty years old, the animation in “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” still holds up fantastically, a few stray shots aside. Though more lyrical than the music in “Castle of Cagliostro,” the score is still the most dated thing about the film. While he would top it in time, “Nausicaa” is still the director’s first fantasy epic and the first true indicator of how high his ambitions ran. Even if the story hits a few snags, it is still a beautifully rendered and gorgeous film with a fantastic main character. [Grade: A-]

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