To be sure, watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind is an interesting experience, albeit not for the reasons typically claimed. Yes, he’s made superior films over the years: films that were better scripted, better illustrated, and much better scored. Yet for too many viewers and critics alike, there is a subtle danger in the more polished films, in that their veneers can be mistaken for genuine depth, and their ‘lush’ imagery — especially in works like Princess Mononoke — for communication. This is because cleaning up a handful of cliches or improving a few visuals are not really qualitative changes, but cosmetic ones, and can do but little to push a work of art to deeper territory, assuming one understands the meaning of the word ‘art’. In this way, Nausicaa is both the beginning of Studio Ghibli as well as the summation of everything Miyazaki could and could not do across his career, prefiguring so many of the tricks and conceits not only within anime, itself, but in video games, comic books, and — for good or ill — popular notions of depth and intellectual probing.
That said, the film’s main problem is its profligate waste, for it takes a potentially rich idea — a low-tech society on the margins after some wisely-unnamed apocalyptic event — and utterly ruins it with a child’s conception of what a good film might look like, as opposed to an adult take on adult themes, executed in an adult manner. And, naturally, it bears repeating that animation is NOT cinema and shouldn’t try to be, at the risk of confusing the advantages of both, and thus being unable to enjoy the privileges of either. In fact, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind spoon-feeds the viewer pretty much every aspect of its tale: its symbols, the meaning of this or that line of dialogue, the film’s imagery, and everything in between. It doesn’t trust your intelligence partly because it thinks it’s speaking to adults, and partly because anime directors, on the whole, have always struck me as solid to good film-makers that have never quite grown up, and assume, in their own solipsistic way, that the rest of the world has merely followed suit. For this reason, Nausicaa is middling, at its best, but puerile and condescending even at its heights. And, in this case, these are little more than visual tricks, combining scenic vistas with messy, anachronistic robots and ships, literally sliding into the film’s shots, nicely subverting a handful of expectations, all the while not knowing what the hell to do with the rest of them.
Nausicaa opens up with an immediate reference to the world’s “toxic jungle,” as an over-voice declares that a thousand years have passed since the collapse of industrialized civilization. Precious little is left to the imagination, which ought to really be the thing to fill in an art-work’s gaps — or else there is no engagement, merely acceptance — and the artist, himself, must be confident enough to leave these gaps, without fearing that they’ll lead to narrative looseness. Yet as soon as this sequence is done, we meet Nausicaa, princess of the Valley Of The Wind, who’s hunting for materials to bring back to her tiny kingdom, and more or less inventories every little thing she thinks or finds: a “perfect Ohm shell,” her “zirconian ceramic sword,” and even the spores that beat down on her head, which, while beautiful, are said to be poisonous. Nothing, then, needs to be re-watched, for everything’s prosaic — even those spores (in fact, one of the film’s few stellar images) which, if they were merely allowed to fall without Nausicaa’s comment, would take on a new meaning for the viewer once it’s learned that they’re toxic, much later in the story. This would demand a re-watch to see just how it’s all handled. Yet for all of anime’s pretense to ‘art,’ such things are rarely considered, and even more rarely executed.
As the narrative progresses, characters start to neatly fall into stereotypes: Nausicaa as a kind of earth-child (replete with shots of her protecting animals as a kid), Lord Yupa as the old, mysterious sword-master, the Tolmekian commander as the conniving wannabe king, and Obaba as the wise, blind hag, down to her cackling at ‘telling’ moments, as well as her cache of ancient lore, indicating she knows more than the film’s other personages ever could. In time, Nausicaa’s Valley — protected, it seems, not only by a trick of weather, but by the jungle’s underbelly — is taken over by the Tolmekians, so that they could acquire the Giant Warrior embryo after it’s ejected from a Tolmekian freight-plane that crashes the night before. Nausicaa’s father is soon killed, and Ushana, the Tolmekian princess and a too-obvious foil to Nausicaa (down to Ushana’s golden armor, vis-a-vis the Valley’s more plain and ‘earthy’ style), takes her as a hostage to proceed with the plan of burning down the toxic jungle. Obaba, of course, warns Ushana of the foolishness of such a task, that it’s people who’ve been evil, polluting the land, only to be ignored. Nor does it help that we learn the world’s plants are not so much poisonous — as believed by most of the characters — but merely seem that way, until they’re allowed to thrive in clean water and proper soil. In fact, it’s all as heavy-handed as the gleam in Commander Kurotowa’s eye-balls, who’s clearly angling for power, and does not, for fear of subtlety, ever pretend otherwise, thus betraying not only the film’s sheer artifice, but — even more importantly — the poorness of said artifice’s construction.
At this point, Ushana’s ships get shot down, and we get the second or third action sequence to be stippled by some of the worst music ever put to anime: a dated, 1980s-era electronic track that’s eerily close to the stuff one might find in Troll 2, at odds with the film’s more ‘fantastical’ scoring elsewhere. In time, Nausicaa finds herself underneath the jungle Ushana wishes to destroy, befriends a pilot, Asbel, and makes yet another realization: that it is the plants, themselves, that detoxify the worst of the jungle’s (man-made) excesses, and that Obaba’s prediction was correct. Above ground, there is now a war between the Wind kingdom, Pejite, and the Tolmekians, with the Pejite using a captured baby Ohm to seduce a huge insect herd to destroy their enemies. The Giant Warrior embryo, finally coming to life, now, is commanded into destroying the herd, but fails in its task, and Nausicaa — who is previously injured in the fighting — is saved by the baby Ohm that she frees. This allows her to calm the stampede and fulfill Obaba’s original prophecy of a figure dressed in blue, bringing a kind of peace to the world that, again wisely, is never truly limned. Yet it’s still quite obvious what this all means, long before the viewer is forced through a series of composite shots of Nausicaa alongside a more ‘manly,’ Christ-like figure cut from Obaba’s prophecy, thus forcing upon the viewer absolutely everything that Hayao Miyazaki wishes that you see, even though you’ve already imagined it for yourself.
In this way, very little is left to the mind’s inner workings; very little is allowed to develop organically, or take on the unexpected meanings that the greatest art is utterly driven by. Yes, the script is quite thin — and often bad, really — but that is merely per the course, with real sin of ‘genre’ films not being their stock-narratives and such, but how they pigeonhole themselves into one or two ideas, then utterly refuse to depart from them. This guarantees a static film, which, when compounded by stereotypes and cliches, drags things down even further, from the princess’s early confrontation with a poorly-conceived insect (“its eyes are red with rage!”), to the way that the various human tribes all bicker with one another, thus ‘proving’ to the viewer how people, in their pettiness, are missing the deeper issues that afflict them. As for the film’s other artistic half: i.e., the animation, itself? It’s polished, I guess, by the standards of 1984, but the praise it’s received calls to mind John Cassavetes’s own words on the subject: that he loathed beauty for beauty’s sake, if it meant nothing and was something merely to gape at. For while, say, the film’s insects might take a careful hand to draw, or its final action sequence in some ways unprecedented, these things STILL communicate nothing of import, and say remarkably little in and of themselves. Sure, a work like Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet might look ‘primitive’ by comparison, but this is belied by the imaginativeness of its figures, and the appearance of seemingly inexplicable shots and events that, over time, really grow and work upon the mind, in ways that transcend a simple-minded A-to-B-to-C narrative, without the sort of tricks and showiness of a far inferior work like Nausicaa, and so much of Studio Ghibli’s output, really, post-Nausicaa.
It is clear, then, that Studio Ghibli is of an art-form still in its infancy. This is not really a bad thing, however, and those that make too great a claim for anime, now, are simply doing it a disservice by implicitly claiming that — since things are purportedly at their height — the art won’t go much further. I mean, just look at some of the comments Nausicaa, alone, has received over the years, whether it’s from little-known boosters such as Felix Vazquez, Jr. praising the film’s many cliches (“courageous martyr/heroine, the valiant humble hero, the mystifying figure, the wiser hero, and a government empire seeking to destroy the land”), all the while refusing to comment on their import, or ‘name’ critics such as The New Yorker’s Michael Sragow, who gives this bit of puffery in lieu of a genuine, qualitative judgment: “when mammoth dandelions puff out spores, the sight is as seductive as it is lethal.” No comment on the how or why, but mere fiat: as per the requirements, I suppose, of a 5-sentence review that does little more than pad a critic’s resume.
Anime is no stranger to these sort of critical excesses, but let’s be clear about what these movies really are. They’re technical works, first and foremost, from artists who, having developed a love for animation in youth, set out to out-do each other — and themselves — on paper, and only on paper. In this way, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind may have a bit of polish on the surface, but little to no imagination: a symptom, really, of the deeper issues in the art-world as a whole. Cinema has already FAR outpaced the cliches and genre-tropes that all beginning art-forms are inevitably saddled with. And THAT’S because the directors PUSHED, and not strictly in technical directions that ignore the more difficult issues of narrative. Yet in 2015, over thirty years after-the-fact, Nausicaa is still what anime tends to remember, and what animators need to forget.