It is very rare, and nothing short of tragic, really, that a filmmaker’s earliest work is his greatest. When auteurs are invariably asked the question of which film they would like to be remembered by, very few select their initial pictures, and with good reason: the beginning of one’s artistic career is an experimental phase, in which ideas are often expressed with little regard (or capability) for nuance or complexity. Age and experience naturally play a factor in this, but I would argue that a truly brilliant filmmaker has a coherent vision that can be identified even in his formative movies.
NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND is a testament to this assertion, and to the creative integrity of Japan’s premier animator, Hayao Miyazaki. Though it is only his second feature-length film, NAUSICAÄ is a lucid, if technically flawed, distillation of the moralistic ideology that comprises Miyazaki’s cinematic landscape. The key tenets of this ideology can be found in every one of the director’s subsequent films and may loosely be defined as such: all living things are to be inherently respected; man must live in harmony with nature; war is the greatest evil; and humility and moderation are the highest virtues. It is no coincidence that Miyazaki’s protagonists (the majority of whom are young girls) live by these beliefs, while the vilest characters, such as Colonel Muska of CASTLE IN THE SKY, are diametrically opposed to them.
Essentially, the eponymous Nausicaä is the standard to which all other Miyazaki heroines aspire. The Princess of the Valley of the Wind is selfless to the extent that she reflexively endangers her life to save fellow humans and insects, which eventually culminates in her death and resurrection. Furthermore, she and her people live in accordance with the natural world around them. The valley is home to a number of windmills that harvest the wind for energy, the forest is a natural buttress against outside threats, and Nausicaä’s people show a strong reluctance to disturb the insects of the poisonous forest (though this is partly out of fear). Nausicaä herself does not perceive the insects as deranged, evil creatures the way her companions do, but rather she shows them mercy and treats them as equals. It is this respect and compassion that ultimately saves her and mankind when a mass of gigantic insects called Ohms charge to the Valley of the Wind to rescue their kidnapped child and destroy all those in their path. She rescues the baby Ohm and returns it safely to the herd, which tramples and then revives her. This is just one moment in which her virtue appears transcendent. Another notable instance is when she commands an attacking fighter to stop shooting at her by adopting a fiercely erect posture while standing on her glider, arms outstretched and weaponless. Her determined pacifism is a thing of awe and beauty.
Traces of Nausicaä can easily be detected in the leading ladies of Miyazaki’s other films. While they are all significantly more flawed than the princess, they are no less admirable and certainly more relatable than she. The kindness Chihiro/Sen shows No-Face even after the monster despotically consumes everything in sight evokes Nausicaä’s capacity for forgiveness, while the lengths Sophie goes to to free Howl from his spell is reminiscent of Nausicaä’s desire to help her fellow man. Sheeta, the protagonist of CASTLE IN THE SKY, makes a statement under pressure that Nausicaä surely would agree with, “No matter how many weapons you have, no matter how great your technology might be, the world cannot live without love.”
CASTLE IN THE SKY follows NAUSICAÄ chronologically in the Miyazaki oeuvre, which explains why it too is considerably more rigid in its morality than later films. For NAUSICAÄ is in essence an allegory of mankind—a depiction of a world at its absolute extremes. There is no question that the protagonist and her people represent how man should ideally inhabit the earth, while the Tolmekians are symbolic of the very worst in man: they are greedy warmongers with little esteem for human life or nature. The Tolmekians decimate and subjugate populations with their tanks and plan on eliminating the poisonous forest with the Giant Warrior, a powerful but uncontrollable fighter of the past. Their hubris stands in sharp contrast with the humility of the valley dwellers, and draws the otherwise peaceful Pejite population into a rash and destructive course of action. Although the Tolmekians’ gear clearly draws inspiration from a WWII-era German military, the ambitious group has many historical parallels, including the U.S. military. After all, it isn’t exactly a stretch to view the Great Warrior as a symbol for the atomic bomb: both have the potential to end civilizations, both are difficult for men to control and neither should ever be employed.
Though NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND in many ways does serve as a warning to mankind, particularly in its anti-war and environmentalist overtones, it also serves as a reminder that any evil released into the world by man can be counteracted by good men and women. Critics may complain that this is overly idealistic or even preachy, but the film nevertheless acts as the cornerstone of Miyazaki’s cinematic vision, which has produced so much beauty for children and adults alike.