More than any anime of its time, Nausicaä was an event. Fans camped outside theatres all night long for tickets; much like Star Wars buffs would later do for the prequels. Hayao Miyazaki’s original manga was serialized in Animage, which became anime’s very own Cahiers du cinema. Akira Kurosawa, the emperor of Japanese film himself, called it a masterpiece. Two decades on it still ranks high in public polls, while Japanese critics grow misty-eyed recalling its humanist message. Yet international critics focus solely on the Oscar winning Spirited Away (2001), and neglect Miyazaki’s earlier achievements. A glance at the Radio Times Movie Guide sees Nausicaä dismissed as “a flat, fantasy saga”.
This is what happens when a foreign filmmaker gets “discovered” by the mainstream. Contemporary film criticism is too facile to assess an artist’s cultural impact in his native land, and reflect on why his pet themes engender international cult appeal. Instead, they impose their own narrative, a rise and fall story. Early works are deemed “less mature”, because if they were truly any good the critics would have heard of them, right? The “breakthrough work” is the one that first caught their eye, inevitably because it was “darker” and easier to assimilate into contemporary definitions of art. Finally, there comes the decline, wherein the filmmaker becomes too well known, needs to be taken down a peg or two, and suddenly new movies “aren’t as good as his early work.”
Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t do dark. What he does is fuse moral complexity, political idealism, boundless tolerance for human foibles, and fairytale optimism into a vision that is as distinct and multi-layered as Stanley Kubrick’s, and as humanistic and commercially successful as Steven Spielberg’s. All this and the guy makes cartoons that send your heart soaring.
Nausicaä is set in a far-flung future, one thousand years after a terrible war consumed the world with pollution. Humanity is reborn as scattered tribes and medieval kingdoms, while mighty, insect-like monsters the Ohmu roam the Sea of Corruption. Princess Nausicaä lives in an idyllic valley protected from environmental devastation by the prevailing winds. Imbued with a love for all living things, she shares a telepathic link with the Ohmu. When a ship crash-lands in the valley, Nausicaä and her friends discover its terrible cargo: an ancient, living superweapon known as the God Warrior. Princess Kushana of the Tolmekian Empire plans on using this monstrous weapon to maintain their supremacy. Her soldiers invade the valley of the winds and – against Kushana’s wishes – Nausicaä’s father is killed. Although more than capable of fighting, Nausicaä chooses not to. Faced with an Ohmu stampede, the God Warrior’s invasion and an approaching apocalypse, she searches for a way to save both nature and mankind. On an epic journey full of action and adventure, Nausicaä encounters other tribes with different points of view, inspiring them all with her courage, wisdom and great heart, before facing her messianic destiny.
All of Miyazaki’s varied influences came together for his second feature. His knowledge of classical children’s literature (Nausicaä is named after a young girl who nursed the stricken hero Odysseus, but also inspired by a Japanese princess who loved insects); his Marxist politics; his interest in environmental issues; his fascination with world cultures (costumes mixing Viking, Tibetan, and medieval influences); and his love of flight (Nausicaä’s amazing antics on her air-glider were the first of Miyazaki’s many hymns to the stratosphere). Film buffs might detect a touch of John Ford in its military camaraderie and folksy values, and Andrei Tarkovsky in its fusion of the epic and the intimate, the magic and mundane. The credit sequence even references Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) with a tapestry that unfurls to reveal Nausicaä in flight.
Originally released in English, cut down to 95 minutes, as the slapdash Warriors of Wind, Disney’s new dub is an agreeable improvement. Alison Lohman (as Nausicaä) and Uma Thurman (as Kushana) provide strong vocals, although Patrick Stewart achieves the remarkable feat of a wooden performance in an animated film. For a best effect, watch it in subtitled Japanese first. Most impressive of all is how Miyazaki produces an action-spectacle comparable to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but with a heartfelt belief and moral complexity neither George Lucas nor Tolkien ever attempted. An anime landmark and essential viewing.