In his second feature as the director for an animated feature, Hayao Miyazaki made his first bid for greatness. Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind may look worse-off compared to the gleaming masterpieces that followed, but look past the dated animation and you’ll find the first bloom of a master filmmaker who’s genius was allowed to run amok.
The titular Nausicaa is the adventurous princess of the peaceful Valley of the Wind, one of the last pockets of humanity to survive the encroaching Sea of Doom and its poisonous spores. The Sea grew after the mythical Seven Days of Fire, a nuclear-holocaust caused by marauding giants. One thousand years later the Earth belongs to the insects, unharmed by the spores they grew to gargantuan sizes. Much too large to be controlled by humans. The largest of these are the Ohms, who resemble trilobites the size of supermarkets. Generally peaceful if enraged they’ve been known to flatten an entire city.
Much of the same ground would be covered in Miyazaki’s intended opus, Princess Mononoke. Between the two features Nausicaa is clearly the poorer child. It’s not just that animation technology had progressed since 1984. Many of the design decisions initially register as cheap. Most characters spend the movie with their faces covered primarily by gas masks to avoid poison spores from the Sea of Decay. All the men in the Valley of the Wind have puffy beards that completely obscure their mouths. When other tribes are introduced they arrive in a rigidly defined uniform and are instantly identifiable amongst them.
If stripping the individuality from the array of characters was a financial choice, Miyazaki is clever enough to spin this into a motif. In the world of Nausicaa, humanity is compared unfavorably to insects. The people of the Valley of the Wind, or Piejet, or Tolmekia all then resemble different colorings of the same beetle. Likewise, with only a few exceptions the characters act in line with their larger tribes. Whenever there’s a threat they operate as if within a hive-mind.
As elsewhere in Miyazaki’s filmography, warfare is depicted as an inexplicable folly. There are no heroes on Miyazaki’s battlefields. The only reasonable course of action is to be a pacifist. Despite being on the verge of extinction themselves, the last major human societies are engaged in brutal wars against each other. The representatives don’t cast the actions of their countries as genocidal, instead calling themselves agents of peace and order against the true villains. Yet its their militaries that always make introductions in this world. The Tolmekia with their lumbering airships and armored troops; the Piejet with their swift and lethal gunships.
Miyazaki’s previous work, primarily on the Lupin series, showed great joie de vivre but nothing could prepare for the ambitions on display here. Nausicaa is positioned as an answer to the Western sci-fi/fantasy of George Lucas and Ralph Bakshi. There are breathtaking sequences with Nausicaa on her glider; the giant Ohms apt to be blinded with rage; and more tender sequences like Nausicaa bonding with a fire squirrel or in her underground garden.
Every scene in Miyazaki’s Nausicaa is filled with surprises and world building distinguished by panache. Some of it feels rushed. The explanation for forests, the culmination of the great prophecy, etc… By prioritizing the narrative though, Nausicaa doesn’t get bogged down by the incessant world-building. For all the grand ambition on display Miyazaki still favors his instincts to craft entertainment that can thrive on its own spectacle.