Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind
by Jason Thompson, Jan 13th 2011
Episode XXXVII: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
"It's not bad people who are destroying forests…It's not like we can coexist with nature as long as we live humbly, and we destroy it because we become greedy. Even living humbly destroys nature."
-- Hayao Miyazaki, interview at Nausicaä.net
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of Miyazaki's earliest films as a director, but to many people, it's still one of his best. Ponyo doesn't have much of a third act; Princess Mononoke is so morally ambiguous it's hard to enjoy; Howl's Moving Castle is confusing. My personal favorite Miyazaki films are probably Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, for its oldschool adventure simplicity, and Spirited Away, for its fairytale beauty and weirdness, but Nausicaä has a lot of things going for it: an environmental message; good vs. evil; and an incredibly inventive, original science fiction world. And giant caterpillars.
There's one other way in which Nausicaä stands alone among Miyazaki's works: it's his only anime that he also drew as a full-length manga. (Of his other manga, most are very short, and only one has been officially translated into English: The Age of the Flying Boat, the prototype for Porco Rosso, a short color manga which was published in the now-defunct Animerica magazine in the 1990s.) Published in Animage magazine from 1982 to 1994, the Nausicaä manga kept going long after the anime movie was made, in between Miyazaki's other projects -- true proof that the manga was a labor of love and not just a tie-in for the film, considering how many other manga adaptations of anime end when the anime is finished and the artist gets bored (for example, the Gankutsuou manga, by Miyazaki's old Studio Ghibli coworker Mahiro Maeda). Together with Lone Wolf and Cub from Dark Horse, Nausicaä is one of the oldest still-in-print manga in the U.S., first translated in 1988 and still available from Viz. It's essential manga reading.
The art of Nausicaä shows the same perfectionism Miyazaki brings to his animated films, where he draws as much as possible by himself. Originally printed magazine-size in Animage, it's so full of detail that it can only really be enjoyed in an oversize edition, like Viz's current seven-volume set. (Viz did an older four-volume small-size edition which is thankfully out of print.) It's not just the art that's packed with detail; the story is compressed too, with pages often having 10 or more panels crammed with action. In contrast to the quick-to-read style of most manga, Nausicaä reads like a European comic (or possibly an American underground B&W comic), and it has as much story as many manga with four times as many volumes. There are no chapter breaks. Like you'd expect from a manga by an animator, something is always happening; the characters are always moving from place to place, airplanes are continually flying (lots and lots of airplanes, since this is Miyazaki), wars are constantly being fought. If Nausicaä has any weakness as a manga, it's that there is no empty space, no visual smoke break to make the detail stand out. Plenty of mangaka think that 'cinematic' manga means slow manga, stretching out conversations and fight scenes for hundreds of flipbook pages. Not Miyazaki. He draws like he has to make every panel the greatest panel on earth.
Fittingly for a manga about nature and biotechnology, everything in Nausicaä looks organic and soft -- possibly another sign of Miyazaki's animation background, where objects squash and stretch and move. It may be the far future, but everything looks old, ramshackle, lived-in; the vaguely Medieval armor and weapons, the futuristic-yet-Edwardian flying machines, and the people's humble, baggy-looking clothes. Nausicaä seems to be set on the planet earth (or maybe not; there are no recognizable maps or real-world names), but none of the groups, countries or cultures is clearly based on anything from earthly history. There is a faint Central Asian look, maybe some Tibetan Buddhism, a bit of Eastern European, a bit of Chinese, but nothing obvious. Nausicaä is one of those rare and precious science fiction stories which depicts an alien (or in this case, future) world where the cultures aren't just modern-day ethnic groups and countries with the names changed. The closest comparison I can think of is Frank Herbert's Dune, which also involves prophecies and giant worms, but even that is stretching it.
Nausicaä is set an unknown time in the future, a thousand years after "the Seven Days of Fire," a great catastrophe which destroyed civilization. In the past, the human race traveled to the stars and mutated life forms with advanced biotechnology ("According to the legends, even horses used to be mammals"); now, only a few warring kingdoms survive on the edges of the "Sea of Corruption," a forest of giant poisonous fungus which gives off a deadly miasma which kills humans in minutes. Furthermore, the Sea of Corruption is ALIVE. Giant carnivorous insects breed there -- wingworms, landgrubs, royal yanmas, hebikera. When angered, the insects swarm and massacre all human life in their path. And, year by year, the Sea of Corruption is spreading.
On the edge of the wasteland lies the Valley of the Wind, a tiny country (population 500) tenuously allied with the Torumekian empire and protected from the miasma by ocean breezes. Nausicaä, the only daughter of the chieftain of the valley, is a jewel in the wasteland: a master swordswoman and a skilled glider pilot. She's also gifted with great empathic-telepathic powers, shared by only a few other characters in the manga. Her ability to sense the feelings of animals has made her sympathetic even to the insects of the fungus forest, most of all the giant Ohmu, enormous sentient 14-eyed worms which are the Great Blue Whales of the fungus ecology. "I love the Ohmu…I think they are the greatest, most noble creatures in all the world," Nausicaä thinks. Humans fight for petty motives and greed, but the Ohmu -- even when they are enraged and attack human settlements -- only fight to protect their own kind, or when they are provoked by human cruelty.
But Nausicaä's wish for peace is futile. The Valley of the Wind is caught in a war between two massive forces: the Torumekian Empire, with its fat, squabbling princes, and the Dorok theocracy, ruled by warrior monks and priest-kings. Both sides have gathered marvels of pre-apocalypse biotechnology to conquer the territory of their opponents. The Torumekians have reactivated a God Soldier, an enormous gaunt creature which breathes nuclear fire, one of the monsters which once destroyed the world. The Doroks are experimenting with even more dangerous technology unearthed from the Crypt of Shuwa, technology which their Holy Emperors have used to prolong their life through cloning. Princess Kushana of Torumekia, the only female commander in the Torumekian Empire -- and a continual target of assassination by her power-hungry brothers -- goes to the Valley of the Wind to call on old treaties and enlist the Valley of the Wind in the struggle. There, she meets Nausicaä, who like her, is a woman in a man's world, forced to be ruthless to survive.
Nausicaä, like most of Miyazaki's works, is a story of strong heroines. But Nausicaä and Kushana are both exceptions in their male-dominated societies; another one of the few female characters is welcomed into a group of refugees with the words "You look like you could bear some fine children. We'd be glad to have you." Nausicaä, it's implied, was raised as a boy because none of her ten brothers and sisters made it to adulthood, and Kushana symbolically casts off her womanliness when she cuts her long hair in honor of her fallen soldiers. The grandfatherly old men of the Valley of the Wind, and the soldiers of Torumekia, treat Nausicaä and Kushana with a mixture of love and reverence, often sacrificing themselves to protect their beloved mistresses. Machiyama (Cruising the Anime City) has suggested that Nausicaä's appeal to her male fans was more than a little sexual, and that its "lolicon undertones" were the inspiration for later, more explicit anime and manga about little girls who make grown men feel weak. Since there's only a single unsexy blink-and-you'll-miss-it nude scene in all of the Nausicaä manga, I wouldn't emphasize the "Nausicaä=sex symbol" theory too much myself, but I *have* heard anime fans arguing passionately about whether or not she wears pants under her skirt (answer: she wears flesh-colored leggings).
Anyway, tights or not, Nausicaä is beautiful and noble, and as she steps outside the boundaries of the Valley of the Wind, the people she meets begin to think that she might be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy…"the white-winged apostle" who will end this warring world, who "shall come to you garbed in raiment of blue, descending upon a field of gold." Thus begins a long epic of battles, chases, prophecies and bizarre biotechnology as Kushana tries to take the throne of Torumekia and save herself from her brothers' assassination attempts, and Nausicaä tries to save as many people as possible from destruction. In the chaos, we encounter bioengineered cactus-men, giant flesh-eating blobs, and a variety of strange characters. Nausicaä's telepathic abilities (always a bit of a deus ex machina and a holdover from the psychic boom of the '80s) fade into the background as the manga goes on, but she always retains her fighting ability and courage. But Nausicaä is not a tale of a war of good vs. evil; neither the Doroks nor the Torumekians have the moral high ground. Instead, Miyazaki, an environmentalist, pacifist and onetime Communist, focuses on the destruction of the land and the suffering of the common people caught in the chaos. Nausicaä is as grim as Grave of the Fireflies. People die constantly. Miyazaki's friendly art style and natural restraint slightly softens the impact of the bloodshed, but still, towns and farmland are destroyed as both sides feed the Sea of Corruption and use biological weapons indiscriminately.
Nausicaä is a morally ambiguous world. Even Nausicaä has a mixture of compassion and anger within her; in one moment she sacrifices her flesh and blood to calm an enraged Ohmu or a squirrel-fox; in the next moment she kills a man in a duel in the heat of battle. "There's a terrible hatred hiding inside of me," she thinks. Kushana, raised in the backstabbing environment of the Torumekian court, is equally dangerous. When Kurotawa, a military attache from the capitol, is sent to keep an eye on her, she sends an assassin to kill him just as a matter of course, but since he manages to live she decides to keep him around. The sly Kurotawa, originally hired to spy on Kushana, eventually becomes her loyal servant (and one of the most entertaining characters in the manga, particularly since he's obviously got the hots for his employer), but he doesn't bat an eye at gunning down his own side's fleeing soldiers when they try to crowd onto Kushana's escape ship. Even the Dorok emperor's brother, a wizened sorcerer over two hundred years old, doesn't think of himself as evil; he justifies using WMDs in the name of peace, vowing "I would use the Sea of Corruption to end this war even a single day sooner!" And the Dorok emperor himself, when he meets Nausicaä, says that her idealism reminds him of the way his brother used to be. "When he was young, he was a genuinely compassionate philosopher-king. There was nothing he wanted more than for the peasants to be at peace. That lasted about twenty years. When the peasants proved to be incorrigibly stupid, he grew to hate them."
"We're the ugliest of all creatures. We do nothing but harm to the earth-- plundering it and polluting it and burning it," thinks Nausicaä. "There must be no more killing and dying!" On her journey, Nausicaä tries to find a solution to all the death. Traveling deep into the fungus forest, she meets the forest people, who have learned to live in harmony with the insects instead of fighting them. At the very heart of the forest, she discovers something incredible -- after the fungus matures and dies, it cleanses the toxins from the earth, leaving beautiful deserts of clean, crystallized sand. Is the Sea of Corruption "born to cleanse this polluted world"? Is it -- and its guardians, the Ohmu -- something to be welcomed, not feared? Could Nausicaä be the prophesied one, who will end the war by helping people find peace with nature?
Well…maybe. That's the message of the 1984 anime version, but the manga is a little different. The thing is, Miyazaki hates easy answers. Only a few of his early movies, like The Castle in the Sky (which, coincidentally, also has the "ancient lost technology" theme), have real 'bad guys'. A more typical Miyazaki theme is humans helpless in the face of sweeping natural forces, as in Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke and (sort of) Ponyo. In interviews, Miyazaki has said that, as he drew the Nausicaä manga, his views on issues changed and he decided to change the ending.
And now is the point when, if you haven't read Nausicaä, you ought to stop reading because of MASSIVE SPOILERS.
In the anime and the first part of the manga, the Sea of Corruption is really a good thing deep down, and Nausicaä wants to reconcile humanity and nature. But as the manga continues, Nausicaä discovers the disturbing fact that the Sea of Corruption, too, was bio-engineered. ("An ecosystem with a goal. Its very existence runs contrary to the laws of nature!") The Sea, even the Ohmu, are creations of the old world, designed to purify the toxic earth and then crumble away, leaving a paradise. But this paradise is not for Nausicaä and her people. Nausicaä, and all the seemingly human inhabitants of the world, are actually mutants, bioengineered to survive in the toxic environment. But when the world is cleansed, the mutants will be unable to survive in the toxin-free environment, and the real humans, the original humans, will rise from their underground bunkers and reclaim the earth.
Realizing that her entire world is just a transitional phase before the earth is "purified," Nausicaä makes a fateful decision. In the climax of the manga, Nausicaä destroys the bunker containing the hibernating children of the old world, so that her people can survive, even if they face an uncertain future of continual conflict against the ever-encroaching Sea of Corruption. Instead of trying to save the entire world, the idealistic dream that led the Dorok Emperor to disappointment and cynicism, Nausicaä focuses on protecting the people who are important to her. She also rejects bioengineering, although she accepts the creatures created by it, such as herself ("a life is a life, no matter how it was made"). In the end, she chooses to protect her own people, the people of *her* world—even if it means killing the 'original' human race.
The ending of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke suggests (1) that there is no good or evil, just different sides fighting; (2) living, at all costs, is the most important thing; and (3) humans and nature may always be at war. The ending of the Nausicaä manga has a similar message, as if showing how Miyazaki's ideas evolved from Nausicaä to Mononoke over 12 long years hunched over his drawing board. Miyazaki is still an environmentalist, but he's a realistic one, who knows that being an environmentalist isn't always easy, and that many people have a hard enough time just trying to survive. But however you feel about Nausicaä's ending, it's a great ending in one important way; like all the best manga set in imaginary worlds, it leaves you wanting to stay in that world longer, to explore it more. (Also, a question: did Nausicaä stay friends with the Ohmu after she discovered they're not just gentle giants, but actually bioengineered terraforming machines?) The Nausicaä manga is amazing. In terms of message, it's a bittersweet pill that maybe only a respected creator like Miyazaki could get away with. In terms of art, it's a beautiful, one-of-a-kind story, a manga that only Japan's most famous workaholic animator could draw.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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