Following the success of The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki began plotting a follow-up that was so ambitious he had to develop the idea as a manga series before he could bring it to the big screen. It paid off. Revisited in the present day, 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind feels like the dawn of what modern viewers imagine when they think “Miyazaki.” The film is an epic distillation of his authorial style, as though the final puzzle pieces moved into proper alignment early in his filmography. Internationally released in heavily edited format as Warriors of the Wind only to later be redubbed and restored stateside by Disney, the film also represents a clear line in the sand between the Ghibli approach to animated storytelling versus that of the House of Mouse.

Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto), the film’s lead, represents the platonic ideal of the Miyazaki protagonist. She’s young, kind and compassionate above all else. Much the way Miyazaki’s last outing transported a noir anti-hero into a fairy tale, Nausicaä is a princess plucked from a fairy tale, but raised within a harrowing, post-apocalyptic world. Her people live in a valley isolated from the neighboring jungle creatures, which she studies in the hopes of understanding how humans can coexist with them.

But a series of events involving neighboring kingdoms sets into motion the kind of calamity that damned humans to their current living situation. Much of the film’s drama comes from warring factions manipulating one another to gain control of a long-buried Giant Warrior, huge destructors responsible for the apocalypse from which everyone is still rebuilding. Miyazaki paints a large portrait of war and desiccation, with his leading lady a sole beacon of hope and decency fighting back against mankind’s worst instincts.

In its early, truncated international format, Nausicaä lost a half hour of its narrative, grinding down its larger environmental themes and thorniness into a nigh-unrecognizable glimmer of itself, perhaps the sort of short-sighted “princess” tale Disney is so known for. But the full film is something else entirely.

There are no mustache-twirling villains interfering in a big love story. Instead, every malefactor within the movie’s plot is someone who, motivated purely by fear for survival, repeats the old mistakes that caused their current predicament. These older leaders mistake their age for wisdom, failing to see beyond the simple fact that their “hard” decisions are, in fact, very easy ones. It’s Nausicaä’s heart and willingness to engage with the landscape and try to understand this new status quo that proves more difficult, because it relies on something resembling faith and a lot of hope.

Miyazaki perfectly captures the majesty of that sort of magical thinking, creating such uplifting imagery out of the well-worn drudgery of a genre so cursed by grime and nihilism. It helps that this is his first collaboration with future Ghibli mainstay Joe Hisaishi, the composer whose otherworldly and plaintive orchestration gives the film so much of its singular beauty.

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Residue

For every lyrical sequence that mixes nostalgia and trauma with ease, there are countless …