Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
2005 English dubbed version: voices of Alison Lohman, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos, and Mark Hamill. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

nausicaaNausicaa is the teenaged princess of the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful kingdom that has remained untouched by the killing spores that have ruined other towns and taken over the forests. Because the valley remains mostly pristine, it is the object of desire for other kingdoms who have not taken such good care of their lands, and the aggressive army of Tolmekia threatens to move in, bringing with it an unsafe willingness to manipulate nature to do its bidding, an ignorant exploitation that threatens its own survival as well as that of the Valley of the Wind.

These three conflicting factions–the Valley of the Wind, the invading Tolmekians, and the gigantic forest insects called Ohm–seem unavoidably headed to a war that will destroy them all, but Nausicaa, who appears to be gifted with an ability to understand plant and animal life, seeks to bring peace without anyone’s resorting to violence, seeing it as the only way for all to survive.

valleyNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s feature-length animated films. It predates his Studio Ghibli, which was built on Nausicaa‘s success. People often speak of it as an environmentalist film, but while it has elements of that theme throughout, its dominant theme is of pacifism, with strong undercurrents of feminism, and it seems to target a younger audience that will be forgiving of its heavy hand. A pleasant surprise is how solidly science-fiction it is, with rather elaborate imaginings of a made-up ecosystem. Miyazaki, who based the film on a manga he wrote, definitely moved more into realms of fantasy as his career progressed, but this story is textbook SF.

While the artwork is up to the Ghibli standard, the animation seems crude by comparison to the rest of the studio’s formidable work, reminding me more of television-quality cartoons than the brilliant work it produced in later decades, and the pacing seems more suited to the Saturday-morning crowd. My favorite thing about a good Miyazaki film is its quiet, reflective moments, which are completely lacking in this film.

However, its main character is among Miyazaki’s most likeable, a sensitive, strong, intelligent young woman determined to fight for the common good, rather than just for the survival of her people. Nausicaa grasps the profound interconnectedness of her people with the land, and her people’s land with other people’s lands. It’s impossible to determine whether her understanding of the planet’s creatures is the product of her sympathy for them, or whether her sympathy comes from taking time to understand them, an ambiguity that adds to the film’s complexity and fortifies its themes. Nausicaa, unlike some of Miyazaki’s other heroines, is a fully realized character impossible to root against. Young viewers will find in her not only a heroic saver of worlds and defender of forests, but an admirable daughter, friend, and person. Highly recommended for young viewers.


Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

howlsSophie is a teenaged hat-maker who angers (and is cursed by) the Witch of the Waste. Now an unrecognizable, very old woman, Sophie finds herself in Howl’s moving castle as she seeks a reversal of the curse. There is some kind of war going on, and although Howl refuses formal invitations to join one side or another, he is involved in an alter-ego form, attempting either to help one side or simply break up the hostilities. Yeah, the story is kind of fuzzy to me, and I’m not going to pretend I got it all.

Howl is some kind of wizard with an incredible vanity problem, at one point becoming depressed to the point of inactivity for some issue involving his hair. Somehow, Sophie (who could do a lot better, if you ask me) falls for him, and if you’ve seen a fair number of films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, you know that her love for him has great power. Like, world-saving power. There are also a wheezing dog, a turnip-headed scarecrow, and a talking fire demon with Billy Crystal’s voice (in the English dubbed release), and they are all appealing enough that the confusing story doesn’t really matter too much. I think I got enough of it at least to embrace the symbolism and develop a genuine fondness for the central character.

movingOne thing I appreciate about Miyazaki’s stories is that they hold to a kind of inclusion that makes any living creature worth caring for. When Sophie takes on her old-woman appearance, her problem is never that she is an old woman, as if being an old woman is somehow undesirable. She is instead dismayed about not being herself, and at times she embraces all the pluses and minuses of being in an old woman’s body. If the director sometimes goes overboard with preachiness, at least his heavy-handed messages are backed up by a graceful, delicate realization of characters.

It seems I write about this whenever I write about Japanese animation, but the Japanese aesthetic that appreciates the beauty in the impermanence of a moment is my favorite thing about the genre, and Miyazaki’s films, by virtue of incredible animation, illustrate it better than anyone else’s. There are moments where we are asked to pause, to soak up a moment, and to appreciate it while it lasts. They are my favorite parts of his films, and there are enough of them in Howl’s Moving Castle to make up for any bizarre, unexplained behavior by its characters.

I have to say that I didn’t love this movie. I barely liked it, but I did like it for all the usual Miyazaki reasons, minus great storytelling.