An Appreciation of Nausicaä: The Movie

nausicaa poster

“We prefer the ways of the water and the wind.” — Old man, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

In this installment, I review the animated adaptation of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the film that was the genesis of Studio Ghibli.

What Happens

Master swordsman Yupa, riding Kai with Kui in tow, visits the remains of a village buried under fungus spores. “Yet another village is dead,” he says, leaving before the insects find them.

We see a tapestry depicting a cataclysmic event. Giant God Warriors tower over fiery rubble, and survivors flee to a flying angel. The tapestry fades to a white glider, flown by a girl in blue.

The glider lands. The pilot, princess Nausicaä, enters a forest of towering fungus: the Sea of Corruption. She collects spore samples. Then she finds an enormous Ohmu shell, and using some gunpowder, she splits off a hula hoop-sized clear eyelid. Sitting under the lid, she marvels at the deadly spores falling around her like snow, noting that she would die in moments without her mask to protect her from the poisonous air.

nausicaa yupa and ohmuShe hears a gunshot. Scurrying to higher ground, Nausicaä sees a giant Ohmu stampeding towards Yupa. She stuns the Ohmu with flash grenades and hypnotizes it with an insect charm, saving Yupa.

After getting to safety, Yupa and Nausicaä formally reunite. The swordsman gives Nausicaä Teto, the squirrelfox he rescued that incurred the Ohmu’s wrath. Nausicaä tells Yupa that her father, Jhil, king of the Valley of the Wind, is bedridden. Yupa takes the Ohmu shell for Nausicaä as she glides back to the valley ahead of him.

Yupa is warmly welcome by the people of the valley on his return, including Mito, Nausicaä’s retainer. Mito resents Nausicaä going into the Sea of Corruption, thinking it’s too risky, but Nausicaä’s retinue of old men say they’re happy she was able to get the Ohmu shell. Everyone enters the castle for a feast.

After the celebration, Jhil, Yupa, Nausicaä, and the wise woman Obaba reminisce by Jhil’s bedside. Yupa brings grim tidings of war in the other kingdoms and the spreading Sea of Corruption. When Jhil asks Yupa to stay to help rule the valley, Obaba says that Yupa cannot rest from his quest: to find the messianic figure depicted on the tapestry, the “blue-clad one surrounded in fields of gold.” Yupa dismisses this, saying he only wants to find a way to stop the spread of the Sea of Corruption.

Late that night, Nausicaä is awakened by Mito, who senses trouble on the wind. They go to the observation tower where they spot a Torumekian ship overtaken by insects and veering wildly. Nausicaä takes her glider and tries to guide the ship down, but it crashes in the valley. Nausicaä finds one survivor: Lastel, princess of Pejitei, in chains and near death. Lastel tells Nausicaä to burn the cargo of the ship just before she dies.

An insect has also survived the crash. Before the valley people can kill the insect, Nausicaä uses her insect charm to put it into a trance, leading it away from the valley on her glider. At the edge of the Sea of Corruption, Nausicaä sees the Ohmu she encountered earlier when she rescued Yupa.

That morning, the valley people clean up the damage caused by the fallen Torumekian ship. Some of them find a giant beating heart. Yupa says it’s a growing God Warrior, one of the giants who destroyed the world in the Seven Days of Fire.

A Torumekian convoy suddenly lands in the Valley of the Wind. A small platoon pushes their way into the castle and kills King Jhil before Nausicaä can save him. Enraged, she bashes the soldiers, almost killing one before Yupa intervenes. Among the Torumekians in the castle are Princess Kushana of Torumekia and her attache Kurotowa.

Kushana collects the weapons of the valley people and gathers them for a speech. She intends to occupy the valley to put an end to the Sea of Corruption using the God Warrior. Obaba interrupts her speech, urging the people not to burn the Sea of Corruption lest they incur the wrath of the Ohmu, telling the crowd that Kushana had Jhil murdered. Before a riot can start, Nausicaä urges the people to submit to Kushana’s rule.

The people of the valley are put to work, towing the embryonic God Warrior into the castle. Kushana tells Kurotowa that she intends to stay in the valley and start a new kingdom, keeping the God Warrior for herself instead of taking it back to Torumekia. Later, Kushana meets with Nausicaä and her retinue, saying that Nausicaä will be her hostage while they report back to Pejite.

That night, Yupa stumbles upon Nausicaä in a secret room. Nausicaä explains that she set up a hidden laboratory to study the fungus from the Sea of Corruption. She discovered that the fungus itself isn’t toxic, only the land and the water it grows in. Nausicaä was using the lab to find a cure for Jhil’s illness, but she’s decided to shut the lab down after his death. She says she’s afraid of how her rage overtook her after Jhil’s death.

That morning, Nausicaä leaves with Kushana on a Torumekian corvette, her retinue in tow on a small barge. As they fly over the Sea of Corruption, a red gunship attacks the convoy, destroying all the corvettes except Kushana’s, which took heavy damage. The barge with Nausicaä’s retinue goes down after their line is severed. Nausicaä and Mito find the valley’s gunship in the corvette’s cargo bay. When Kushana finds them, Nausicaä decides to rescue her as well. The three of them leave the corvette on the gunship and find the falling valley barge, guiding them down to a safe landing.

They land safely in the Sea of Corruption. Kushana attempts to take the valley gunship for herself, but Nausicaä persuades her not to. Then, several giant Ohmu finds the barge and the gunship, and Nausicaä attempts to communicate with them. An Ohmu wraps her in gold-colored feelers. In a trance, Nausicaä recalls a childhood memory of trying to hide a baby Ohmu from her father and Mito. The Ohmu withdraws, following a stampede of other enraged Ohmu. Nausicaä takes her glider from the barge and follows.

The Ohmu are attacking the boy from the red gunship, who is running out of bullets for his rifle. Nausicaä tries to rescue him, sternly lecturing him for using a gun on the insects, when her glider crashes and the two are sucked under quicksand. The gunship, towing the barge, emerges from the Sea of Corruption. Mito and the other search frantically for her, to no avail.

nausicaa asbel sea of corruptionNausicaä recalls more of her childhood memory just before waking. The boy she tried to rescue introduces himself as Asbel, the twin brother of Lastel. Nausicaä explores the cavernous undergrowth of the forest. She realizes that the fungus decay into clean sand, that the purpose of the Sea of Corruption is to cleanse the world.

That night back in the Valley of the Wind, Kurotowa checks on the progress of the God Warrior, which has grown to an incredible size; Kurotowa wonders if he can seize the valley for himself if Kushana doesn’t return. Also checking on the God Warrior, in secret, is Yupa. He meets with Mito, who is in hiding with Nausicaä’s retinue and Kushana as prisoner. Yupa asks Kushana to drown the God Warrior in the nearby Acid Lake, but Kushana says the God Warrior can no longer be killed. She says Torumekia attacked Pejitei for the God Warrior and asks Yupa to use the God Warrior against the insects, showing him the damage that insects had done to her body.

The valley has become infested with spores from the Sea of Corruption. In the valley forest, the people are panicking, requesting their weapons to control the spores. Kurotowa gives them back their weapons, and the people burn down the forest to protect the valley from further spore infestations. During the panic, Yupa and Mito take the gunship from the valley to find Nausicaä.

Nausicaä and Asbel fly to Pejitei. On the way there, they find masses of dead insects, then the ruins of Pejitei, wrecked from an Ohmu stampede. A Pejitei ship lands nearby; the mayor of Pejitei is triumphant, having used the Ohmu as a weapon against the Torumekians. Nausicaä recoils in horror when she hears that Pejitei plans to use the Ohmu against the Valley of the Wind as well, but she and Asbel are taken captive before they can escape.

The Valley of the Wind revolts against Kurotowa. Nausicaä’s retinue of old men hijack one of the Torumekian tanks, but don’t get very far. Kushana escapes from captivity and returns to the castle, and Kurotowa immediately abandons his ambitions for rule, running back to her side. The people of the Valley of the Wind flee to the remains of a spaceship (looking suspiciously like the Yamato) outside the valley where Mito and Yupa had hidden earlier.

The Pejitei ship flies towards the valley. Nausicaä, held captive, is snuck out by Asbel’s mother. Asbel takes Nausicaä to the cargo bay where her glider is being held, when a Torumekian corvette attacks their ship. Nausicaä escapes from the ship, but is pursued by the Torumekians until the valley gunship flown by Yupa and Mito come to her rescue. Yupa then boards the Pejitei ship, taking the Torumekian leader captive and gaining control of the ship, while Mito and Nausicaä race back to the valley.

The people of the valley wait in the wrecked spaceship for the remaining Torumekian land forces, led by Kushana, to attack. Kushana wants to wait for Nausicaä to return, while Kurotowa gets impatient. She interrogates Nausicaä’s retinue, who tell Kushana that she’s nothing like Nausicaä, as Kushana uses fire when “the ways of the water and the wind” are better. Kushana decides to attack in one hour. As the retinue is released to rejoin the valley people, they notice that the wind has died, an unprecedented event in the history of the Valley of the Wind.

Nausicaä and Mito clear the Sea of Corruption to find an enormous Ohmu stampede. They spot a Pejitei flying jar carrying an injured baby Ohmu, luring the insects towards the valley. Mito wants to kill the Pejitei soldiers, but Nausicaä insists the baby has to be saved to stop the stampede. She jumps in her glider and confronts the Pejitei soldiers unarmed.

The gunship arrives just before Kushana is about to attack. Mito warns that the Ohmu are coming, urging everyone to get to high ground. Kushana tells her forces to face the Ohmu while she goes to get the God Warrior, but Kurotowa warns her that it isn’t ready yet.

Nausicaä, confronting the Pejitei flying jar, is shot while she jumps into the jar, crashing it onto a sandbar in the middle of the Acid Lake. Injured, Nausicaä watches as the Ohmu tries to crawl into the lake. She attempts to keep it from drowning itself in the lake, while the Ohmu’s spurting blood stains her clothes dark blue. The acidic water burns her bleeding foot, which startles the Ohmu back from its rage. The Ohmu, sensing Nausicaä’s pain, heals her wounds with its feelers. Nausicaä comforts the baby Ohmu, but the other Ohmu continue to stampede towards the Valley of the Wind.

The combined forces of the Valley of the Wind and Torumekia fire shells at the stampeding Ohmu, drawing them closer. The Pejitei soldiers from the flying jar point and laugh just before Nausicaä picks up a minigun and persuades the soldiers to carry her and the baby Ohmu to the front of the herd.

Before the Torumekian forces flee, Kushana returns with the God Warrior, half-formed, flesh melting from its bones. It fires several explosive bolts, exploding like nuclear bombs, into the stampeding Ohmu herd, but it soon comes apart.

As the herd reaches the spaceship ruins, Nausicaä and the baby Ohmu land at the front of the stampede.  The Ohmu trample Nausicaä to death. The Ohmu destroy the tanks and smash into the spaceship ruins before the herd’s rage subsides. The Ohmu stop their stampede, but the people discover that Nausicaä has died. Then the Ohmu surround Nausicaä, bringing her back to life. As she walks upon their feelers, Obaba realizes that she’s the prophesied messiah, “clad in blue and surrounded by fields of gold.” Nausicaä returns to her people, the Torumekians depart, and there is hope again that humans and insects can live together.

My Thoughts

Two years before Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released in Japan, a small group of animators, defectors from Walt Disney Animation led by Don Bluth, released The Secret of NIMH. Like Nausicaä, it was a small project led by animation legends to found their own company (Studio Ghibli for the former, Don Bluth Animation for the latter). Both films share a willingness to pursue ambitious goals with heavy restrictions on time, budget, and manpower. Both are adaptations — Nausicaä of Miyazaki’s own manga, NIMH of a popular children’s book.

I think NIMH is the better film chiefly because the source material was a complete story, whereas Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was two volumes of a seven-volume story. Miyazaki took the story beats he had written, strung them into a plot the best way they could fit, and animated the result.

The consequence was a severe over-simplification of a complex storyline, with a pat climax tacked onto a thrilling sequence that lacks resolution on its own terms. The story works, but lacks the economy of Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, or the moving resolution of Princess Mononoke, which shares a similar epic scope. The elements that I love about the manga — the passing of the world, the threat of the absolute catastrophe, the descent into nihilism midway through — are glossed over.

The choices Miyazaki made when adapting his sprawling story are understandable under the circumstances. The Dorok Empire is rolled into Pejitei as a desperate nation willing to commit biological warfare to achieve its aims; the court intrigue of Torumekia gets shucked entirely, with Kushana pushed to the foreground. (Torumekian soldiers are portrayed far less sympathetically in the film than the manga.) The worm handlers, the pariahs of Nausicaä’s world, are turned into generic mercenaries working for Kushana.

Unlike the manga, Kushana has severe battle scars, a physical representation of her hate for the Sea of Corruption and the Ohmu. This prejudice isn’t present in the manga either, where she’s portrayed as a world-weary heir apparent to the Torumekian throne who’s lived through repeated backstabbing.

Nausicaä’s arc is broader. Unlike her arrogance shown towards the Torumekian landing party in Volume 1, here she’s driven by the rage of the death of her father Jhil (another change from the manga, where he dies of his illness.) Yupa counsels her to contain her hatred.

This demonstrates the film’s theme, underlying all of the character’s motivations: hatred is a destructive force. Character motivations in the manga are more complex: loyalty to one’s homeland, religious conviction, the search for knowledge and peace, the need for a sustainable world. I think this over-simplification damages the film, especially since Miyazaki would confront more complex thematic elements in later films.

Despite these flaws, the film does work, and I do enjoy watching it. The most immediate advantage over the manga is the use of color: the red eyes of angry Ohmu contrasted with the cool blues of their shells, Nausicaä’s vivid hair and eyes, the fiery squirrelfox Teto, the earth tones of the Valley of the Wind, the sterile grey of the bottom of the Sea of Corruption.

melting god warriorEspecially vivid is the God Warrior sequence, animated solely by Hideaki Anno, who later created Neon Genesis Evangelion. It takes only two minutes to feel a great deal of sympathy with a conscious weapon of mass destruction.

There’s so much humor as well, striking a lighter tone than the manga:

(Nausicaä confronting Kushana’s trigger-happy attitude) “You act like a scared little fox-squirrel.” “What did you call me?

(Kushana exposing the stump of her missing arm) “And whatever lucky man who becomes my husband will see worse than that!”

(Kurotowa overseeing the growth of the God Warrior) “Is that a smile?”

(Nausicaä’s retinue stealing a tank) “You’re going the wrong way!” “I know, I know!”

(Mercenaries watching Yupa’s entrance in a Torumekian ship) “That’s Lord Yupa! Kill him and you’ll be famous!”

Much of the humor comes from the vocal delivery of Disney’s dub cast, which reads like a geek’s cracked fantasy: Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Edward James Olmos, Chris Sarandon, even Mark Hamill. Alison Lohman and Shia LeBoeuf also earn early career credits. It’s not as polished as later dubs by Disney that were overseen by John Lasseter, but it gets the job done and the line delivery is occasionally magical.

The score by Joe Hisaishi is both moving and incredibly dated. Half of the score was performed electronically, lending the picture a weird 80s vibe, and half is nearly fully orchestrated. I’m a fan of the opening theme “Bird Woman” and “Requiem” played at the climax.

Macekre at the Valley of the Wind

Disney wasn’t the only distributor that got their hands on the film. New World Pictures released a butchered version called Warriors of the Wind back in the 80s. The treatment so riled Miyazaki he refused to allow distributors to cut a single frame from a Studio Ghibli picture ever since (he has a more liberal attitude towards language dubbing.) I’ve only seen clips, but even those were so horrible I wouldn’t watch Warriors of the Wind without a tall bottle of scotch nearby.

TVTropes coined a term for distributor edits of this level of travesty: Macekre, pronounced “massacre,” named after producer Carl Macek.

Live Action?

This series of concept drawings for a Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind live-action adaptation reminded me of my own fantasies of an American adaptation. Saorsie Ronan would play a thoughtful, compassionate Nausicaä, Katie Sackoff her cynical but valient foil Kushana, and that-nice-guy-who-looks-like-a-douche James Franco a scheming Kurotowa. Yupa deserves Toshiro Mifune, but Ken Watanabe could fill those shoes just as well. Morgan Freeman would own the divided loyalties of the Dorok monk Charuka, and the perpetually youthful and creepy Benedict Cumberbatch the Dorok Emperor and his twin brother.

And it should never happen.

Although Studio Ghibli hasn’t licensed their library for live-action adaptations, if they did Disney would likely grab the rights. Disney, unfortunately, has had a long history of failed franchises lately, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind could be another one. I remember Andrew Stanton, thrown under the bus for the criminally underrated John Carter, and I (almost) weep.

Let’s assume Walt Disney Pictures gave the franchise its full support. The complex themes of the manga would be gone, reduced to even simpler terms than in the animated adaptation. There would be no mention of religion at all (Disney even changed “God Warrior” to “Giant Warrior” in the dub), so the Dorok Empire would look quite different. The horrors of war portrayed in the manga would be missing. And the ending — which I will get to in a couple of months! — would be greatly altered from its dark and more ambiguous state.

It would be expensive. John Carter makes a good comparison: as many location shoots as possible, but with extensive aerial battles and expensive motion-capture. Rumored to be $350 million including marketing expenses, that film cost Disney a pretty penny when it bombed in the US (despite a healthy box office overseas). A Nausicaä adaptation would come under greater scrutiny, and any poor soul charged with directing the first film would have every creative decision questioned by a platoon of well-dressed executives.

Would the audience support it? Probably not. Studio Ghibli carries some weight with film afficionados, but the public at large doesn’t recognize most of their catalogue, unlike a popular franchise like The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings. Disney wouldn’t hire a name brand director like James Cameron to helm it either, so there would be no Avatar-like hype going in.

Even if the initial film performed well enough to warrant sequels, the scope of production would dictate 2-3 years between premieres. A third of the cast — Nausicaä, Asbel, Ketcha, many others — would require teenage or pre-teen actors, so unless Disney has Warner Brother’s ability to churn out Harry Potter films like clockwork, the cast would age too quickly. Disney simply doesn’t move that fast with larger productions.

Here’s the rub. For a Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind film series to work, the first film would need to be exactly like Harry Potter in terms of popularity and execution: catching lightning in a bottle, good enough to get buzz through word-of-mouth, made cheaply enough that greenlighting a sequel doesn’t take years, guided by dedicated writers and producers who can see the series through. The lead playing Nausicaä would need the charisma to carry the role through several movies. There would need to be enough merchandising opportunities to support the cost of the franchise (squirrelfox and horseclaw plush animals, and Nausicaä action figures!). There would be a theme park attraction built somewhere in the production of the second movie. It couldn’t just be good; it would have to be phenomenal.

Those are damn risky odds.

This and That

April is Miyazaki Month at KineCritical, which is hosting a series of essays on the animator and his output. I haven’t yet read all of their articles, but they’re worth checking out.

Miyazaki and Anno collaborated last year on a live-action short, “Giant God Warrior Appears Over Tokyo,” and to judge from the trailer it sure looks intriguing.

Next time, I’ll talk about Volume 3, and the best chase sequence in the entire series.