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 Kushana, the Tolmekian princess and a too-obvious foil to Nausicaa (down to Kushana’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 Kushana 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, Kushana’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 Kushana 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.
“Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind may have a bit of polish on the surface, but little to no imagination…”
Probably my main issue with anime and its exemplars. With Miyazaki I’ve noticed that the visuals are usually pretty good, but the films, as a whole, are only superficially imaginative. This probably because, as you’ve stated, anime has not yet grown-up, equating pretty visuals with depth. Anime needs something like a “Citizen Kane” but that would require anime filmmakers to want and feel the need to push the boundaries of their art.
Though I may be generalizing here, but I’ve seen some Miyazaki films and other anime films that are supposed to be classics and they were, at most, interesting.
I agree, and even Miyazaki’s ‘pretty good’ visuals are so only in the superficial sense. The visuals are technically superior to, say, FANTASTIC PLANET, but that film has far more *imaginative* visuals, that linger in the mind — some technical sloppiness or no. It’s sort of like the more middling of the Renaissance masters compared to Bosch: the masters had better technique, in some ways, but that doesn’t necessarily make for better art.
Yeah, I’m watching anime in the hopes of finding a truly great film, for I feel the peculiarity of anime’s aesthetic can easily lend itself to a ‘new’ kind of art, and perhaps a different sort of greatness. Or at least a new route to greatness.
So far, nothing has satisfied this wish. In general, I’ve found that some anime series are better than films. The best of Neon Genesis Evangelion is excellent, and the best of Cowboy Bebop can be really poetic and alluring in ways that neither cinema nor animation typically is. The totality, though, is usually not much more than ‘good.’
Just after finding this article. While I ‘ve never seen the film in question, you make a lot of points that are similar to what I feel about anime (and also comic books/graphic novels) in general – much potential as a medium, but just not doing enough with it. Now, I’m quite new to the genre, so maybe there are some out there that attempt more, or at least try to experiment a bit, but going by what you’ve written, it doesn’t seem so…
Your comment about the visuals is especially good – it’s one thing to have pretty images, but in a lot of cases they just act as a gloss rather than being something that adds to how the narrative is communicated. It’s a pity, because there really is so much potential, especially considering the fantastical elements that tend to be common.
Anyway, excellent article and thanks for writing it.
Yeah, most of it is mediocre to worse, although, even on a purely technical level, I’d say the mindset is to experiment and push forward. It’s just that what it REALLY entails, for most, is a superficial kind of progress, and weak ideas.
Have you read my take on Evangelion?
It’s a solid/good show, overall, although Cowboy Bebop is probably the most consistent one I’ve seen. Stuff like Steins;Gate is supposed to be ‘deep’, but is merely aiming at such; lots of whiners complained that Nolan’s ‘Inception’ was taken from the anime film, ‘Paprika,’ but ‘Paprika’ sucks, even if it came first.
I’m gonna check out FLCL and Hyouka this week to see what’s what, since I’m looking for similar-themed material for a novel set in a fantastical Meiji-era Japan. For all of its issues, I think anime is a great spring-board for doing greater things, provided an artist sees the problems, and has a few solutions.
Thanks for reading, Laura.
Have you watched Takahata’s (Studio Ghibli’s other major director) Grave of the Fireflies? I would be interested in reading your opinion on it.
Yes, I’ve seen it, and consider it one of the better Japanese animated films. I’d rank it, maybe, alongside “Ghost In The Shell” — another solid/good film, with some novel machinations.
It’s been a couple of years since I watched “Grave,” but I still recall the mysterious ending, and some good narrative arcs.
I realise this is an old review – is it still okay for me to send a response to it? (I’ve only just read the review.) I’m not sure of the statute of limitations! If it’s okay for me to respond, I’ll try my best to be thoughtful.
What do you think of sakuga?
Here’s a good article that serves as an intro to the concept/movement: https://wavemotioncannon.com/2016/02/21/at-least-its-an-ethos/
I think the central argument of sakuga is that form and content are indistinct, so with primarily visual mediums (like film and animation) the focus in evaluating them should be in accordance with that (although other elements are still taken into account, they are not as important). There is also an emphasis on better understanding art/film theory, the history of anime and the people who work to produce them, for the sake of better anime criticism.
Here is a review of Ghost in the Shell from the same writer that puts this framework into application: https://twolongfourtwitlonger.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/ghost-in-the-shell-1995/
My other question is what anime would you rate the highest? I know that you and DS use a 100 point grading system. Have you applied this to anime? Would any of them get above a 90? Based on your comments (that I’ve read), I’d assume that none reach the 95+/greatness territory.
(like film* and animation)
better understanding art/film theory, the history of anime, the craft itself* and the people who work to produce them
Someone asked me about sakuga in another comment thread, and I’ll just say this. It’s good that people are trying to take anime seriously as an art form, but they’re focusing on the wrong thing. One essay on sakuga went on in great detail about how some individual scenes played out, but there was no real, mature effort to discuss it in any meaningful context. The best technique says something in and of itself, and must embolden, refract, or turn away from the narrative at large. I haven’t found most anime fans, or even mature academics who take an approach similar to sakuga, able to deal with this question satisfactorily. The writer in the first link is correct that writing is usually anime’s weakest link, and its animation strongest, but if you can’t use good visuals for a compelling narrative (and I don’t mean ‘plot’) it is lifeless and a bit dull.
As for the second link, Ghost in the Shell is a good film. I did not realize it had ‘fallen into disrepute’, since anime, as a whole, has gotten worse since the 90s, not better. So, logically, there is not even much space for it to fall.
I have not applied much of a rating system to anime except in my own mind. It would mean throwing out even much good anime (that is, by the standards of anime), which I don’t think is 100% useful right now since anime is about where rap is now: it’s produced some good to even excellent work, at times, but has never broken through to artistic greatness. It is better to flat out say what works, what doesn’t, and what should be done in the future. Thus, I treat an anime film or show like a rough draft by some guys who are in the midst of an experiment. Once they get it out of their system and embark on a real project some time down the road, I will treat it as such. I realize this sounds like a slap in the face but it also keeps me from being some sort of old fogy critic who can’t even keep an open mind, which is necessarily what might happen if I am asked to evaluate anime on the level I might pick apart a world-class film.
I thought Graveyard of the Fireflies was good, Angel’s Egg (did you recommend it to me? someone on my site did), the last short in Memories, much of Cowboy Bebop, parts of NGE, Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue, and a few others. By contrast, I thought Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers (two ‘classics’) were mediocre to bad, Akira really overrated, while Clannad After Story- obviously a cheap ‘romance’ anime with terrible humor and really bad writing- had a scene or two I thought was really well-written and excellently shot. I’ve seen a handful of Miyazaki and while he’s good stylistically, I’ve not seen anything of substance. When I have time, I’d like to delve into some classics from the 70-80s. Nothing I’ve seen gets even into the 90s territory, whereas seemingly ‘childlike’ animation, like South Park, can be legitimately great art.
It’s interesting how games like Chrono Trigger tried to use and re-cycle some of anime’s aesthetics (particularly the cyberpunk stuff in Akira, Ghost in the Shell, etc.), but they also don’t elevate beyond anime’s histrionics. Mood-wise, I thought the old Playstation game Parasite Eve did a good job of channeling the aesthetic and was well-executed in other ways too.
Do you have any detailed thoughts to give on Angel’s Egg? What was your interpretation of it?
Have you seen Revolutionary Girl Utena? It’s praised pretty highly by most anime critics for its visuals and thematic depth.
“Angel’s Egg” (did you recommend it? someone on here did) was pretty good. There was good narrative, and by that I don’t mean ‘plot’. Yes, things were happening in the story, but the ‘what’ was connected really nicely to the ‘how’. For example, there were plenty of moments where specific visual might allude to the ‘outer’ story, where the artists don’t hammer you over the head with anything, but throw in shadows of soldiers or whatever else implying war, but do not dwell on it, since it recognizes that the 2-3 central characters and ideas are really how the story unfolds. There’s a nice balance between the viewer getting ‘just enough’ to know what’s happening, yet still being forced to imbue some things that retain a bit of mystery. I don’t even recall what it was all about, merely that this was the impression, and that it was done well.
I wasn’t, but I’m glad someone did. I think Angel’s Egg and GitS are Oshii’s best works. The reason I’m curious about the former is because it’s (even more) enigmatic.
Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai is close to them in quality, but even more obscure than Angel’s Egg. It’s about a family in modern day Japan who are thrown into disarray with the appearance of a girl who claims to be the son’s time-traveling granddaughter. It’s a tragicomedy presented and acted out, in most scenes, as a theatre play.
I would recommend viewing that (there’s also a summary movie of the six episodes called Maroko, which I haven’t seen), and also looking into the other works of Isao Takahata, since you thought Grave of the Fireflies was good.
I’ll check them out. By the way, I just replied to your email again, so if you want, feel free to make a list of recommendations there. In general, the recs typical anime fans give online are bullshit, but you’ve shown by your own suggestions that you’re more discriminating than most.
Thank you for your review! It raises some interesting questions that propel me to look more deeply. I do tend to feel that Hayao Miyazaki has made major movement in character development beyond the short list of stereotypical character types that are usually cast in traditional Japanese anime, however, you inspire me to ask, why not go further and continue to create even better rounded and more idiosyncratic characters? What more might be possible? To what extent might we honor the traditions of the genre, tip hats to it, and at the same time continue to press against its boundaries? Exciting to contemplate! I intend to read parts of your review to my Literary Analysis of the Films of Hayao Miyazaki class to inspire critical thought.
In closing, I offer a small editing suggestion and I hope you won’t mind: the character you describe as Ushana is, I believe, named Kushana. http://studio-ghibli.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Nausica%C3%A4_of_the_Valley_of_the_Wind_Characters
Thanks for the catch.
Yeah, you’re right; anime’s biggest weakness is in its characterizations. It’s perhaps the biggest weakness in NGE, which forces lots of bad dialogue in its wake that might not otherwise be there:
You should play the game Chaos;Child. It is much deeper than Steins;Gate and any anime I know of. The company hired a mainstream novelist instead of a 2ch geek to write the bulk of the story
Really? Where’s it available? I only do Windows. On STEAM, it looks like the show, though, not a game. And by the way- how’s the show?
You’re now the second person to recommend a visual novel. I’ll probably do 2 or 3 next year- any others you’d recommend?
Actually, it’s more like the non-VN writer only wrote the starts and ends of the Common Route, as well as the True End – though I hear he did part of the planning of the overall story.
A problem with (some) Visual Novels is how they hire multiple writers for projects, so that they can fill up the wordcount. The result is that a single authorial vision is diluted and the overall product is marred with excess. Big name titles especially.
I personally like the work due to bias towards Otaku stuff, for it being particularly daring within the medium (though less so if you look in the wider view), as well as for the entertainment – but would not rate it high outside of the medium.
Also, the Chaos;Child is for PS4 and PS-Vita only.
I would still go with Subarashiki Hibi (https://vndb.org/v3144) as a good introduction to the medium – if you want to see a work that shows the potential & best aspects thus far, while also representing its greatest flaws (over-reliance on tropes and stereotypes, and lack of concision).
Steam, right? I remember it being kinda pricey then. I’ll wait for a drop.