With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
Following the release of The Castle of Cagliastro, Hayao Miyazaki didn’t exactly receive a huge amount of success. The film wasn’t a box office success and fans of the Lupin III franchise didn’t like the direction that the film went in. However, while the film didn’t really impress audiences, it impressed one person in particular, an editor at the anime magazine Animage, Toshio Suzuki. Suzuki is one of the unsung founders of Studio Ghibli and without him, Miyazaki may not have been given an opportunity to create or direct an anime again.
When the two met, Suzuki would help Miyazaki pitch several films to the publisher of Animage, who rejected those ideas. Instead, Suzuki would help Miyazaki create a manga. This manga became one of the most popular and well-received manga in the magazine’s history, which helped to encourage a film adaptation with the caveat that Miyazaki would direct it. After only nine months of production, Miyazaki’s second feature film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind would release.
It’s interesting looking back at Nausicaa since when I first saw it in high school, I was not a fan of the movie. I’ll get into the specifics later, but I was just left very unimpressed by the movie and what it attempted to do. Looking back on it now over a decade later, while I won’t call the film bad by any means, it comes across more as a prototype of the concepts, themes, and ideas that Miyazaki would insert into most of his films. This isn’t an adaptation in the same way that Castle of Cagliostro was, this is Miyazaki’s brainchild and that allows him to really step into his own as a creator.
The story follows Nausicaa, a princess in the Valley of the Wind, one of the last few hospitable places on the planet. The rest of the world has been overcome by a poisonous force called the Toxic Forest and giant insects roam the land. This apocalyptic landscape was because of an event called the Seven Days of Fire, an event one thousand years ago that was caused by biomechanical creatures called God Warriors. In the present day, the kingdom of Tolmekia has found a God Warrior embryo and plans to revive it for their own purposes, but Nausicaa is able to find the embryo in a crashed transport vessel and begins a conflict with Tolmekia that will determine the fate not only of the valley that she calls home, but possibly the entire planet.
If there’s anything to be said about Nausicaa that I cannot deny, it’s that its animation is stunning. Given the fact that the film was completed in only nine months and Miyazaki struggled with writing it, it’s a miracle that some of the scenes look as crisp and as detailed as they are. The entire climax of the film, which shows the revived God Warrior laying destruction to anything that gets in its way, is a sight to behold solely from the fact that every element of that scene is drawn frame by frame. The way the God Warrior slowly moves across the battlefield, oozing fluids and raining destruction down is mesmerizing. It’s horrific, but you can’t turn away from it. Although to be fair, that’s not surprising once you realize that Gainax founder Hideaki Anno was the one who animated the sequence.
Much like Castle of Cagliostro, the film is ultimately a simple one. There are clear good guys and bad guys who are in conflict to try and protect or destroy the world. Nausicaa is our pure-willed heroine who is looking to try and save the world by discovering ways to restore nature and stop the toxic environment that overwhelms the planet. She’s kind but is also willing to fight in order to protect what she believes in, which isn’t at all surprising given Miyazaki’s other works. Miyazaki has a penchant for creating strong female protagonists and Nausicaa set the framework for future heroines.
However, it’s one thing to set a foundation for future titles, but it’s an entirely different thing to reuse ideas wholesale in later films. The biggest gripe that I have with Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind that I couldn’t escape back then was just how it’s almost exactly like one of Miyazaki’s later films, Princess Mononoke. While I do believe that every film should be able to stand on its own, the number of similarities between the two films is striking, making Nausicaa feel like a rough draft of ideas that would be refined by Mononoke.
Both films contain very blatant environmental messages, with an unnamed industrialized civilization being responsible for the destruction of the planet in Nausicaa. The horrific landscape is a direct result of human pollution and humans are struggling to survive. Both films feature a sympathetic antagonist whose motives you understand, but in Nausicaa, the villain, Princess Kushana, isn’t directly related to the pollution that is infecting the planet, as opposed to Mononoke which more organically ties its themes together. Add in some religious imagery, anti-war messaging and the importance of pacifism, and the desire to respect the planet and you basically have a cocktail of the themes that Miyazaki continuously draws upon.
None of that makes the film bad per see, but there’s a lack of subtlety and nuance in conveying them. Miyazaki does an excellent job at presenting the characters as fully faceted and the world as fully developed, but the film definitely has touches of a story that is very passionate about its message. Nausicaa and the people of the Valley of the Wind are always in the right and are rarely, if ever, actually wrong. There are definitely moments where the film can come across as “preachy” and like you’re being lectured to by Nausicaa, but I’ve softened on that stance. It now just comes across more as Miyazaki finding his voice and refining what he’s passionate about in a subtler way, further proving how Monoke would refine the concepts here and serve, in my personal opinion, as his masterpiece.
But regardless of whether or not you love the film or dislike it, the movie is one of the most prominent and important anime feature films of the 1980s, right up there with films like Akira, Wings of Honnemaise, Barefoot Gen, and virtually every other made by Studio Ghibli. While Castle of Cagliostro received mixed responses from critics and fans, there was universal acclaim for Nausicaa, which was seen as a masterpiece for its animation, narrative, and its accessibility. Anyone could watch the film and enjoy it without reservation. Just because the ideas in this film were refined in future Miyazaki features doesn’t mean that the ideas weren’t well executed here.
The film actually did receive a release in the West shortly after its 1984 release, but this version of the film, titled Warriors of the Wind, was a butchered cut at best. The film was picked up for distribution by New World Pictures, a company that produced dozens upon dozens of, what I can only describe as, 80s shlock (and Hellraiser 1 and 2). This edit cut 24 minutes of the original film, gave highly distorted marketing, such as a poster that featured an all-male cast, and is a heavily simplified version of the plot. It’s because of Warriors of the Wind that Studio Ghibli has a firm “no cuts” policy when it comes to licensing out its films for international releases. It wouldn’t be until 2005 when Disney produced a new dub of the film that the original edit was finally shown in the West in all of its glory.
But yeah, let’s actually talk about Ghibli now, since the success of the film gave Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, the producer of the film, enough capital and confidence to found the studio. Despite not being officially a Studio Ghibli film, Nausicaa is considered part of the Ghibli canon due to the importance it had for the company’s founding. With it, all of the major players that would go on to define the studio, and allow for Miyazaki’s continued success, came together for the first time. And it wouldn’t be the last time these three creators would work together on a single film again, as their next film would serve as the feature debut of their newly founded studio.
Join us next time as Peter Glagowski takes a look at Miyazaki’s third film, Castle in the Sky.