Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
A vast apocalypse left civilization in ruins a thousand years ago, and the world is now dominated by hostile wastelands and poisonous forests. Remnants of humankind struggle against this environmental upheaval, and one idyllic outpost is the Valley of the Wind. Nausicaä is its princess, and she's fascinated by the strange insectile creatures that overtake the land. Yet the bellicose Tolmekian Empire plots to reclaim the world for humans, and Nausicaä stands right in their way.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was Hayao Miyazaki's first movie in a sense. He had plenty of experience before it, of course. He'd directed the best Lupin III flick with The Castle of Cagliostro and helmed the Future Boy Conan TV series (which was cobbled into a film later on). Yet Nausicaa was the first time he'd taken on a major cinematic work that was his from the start. Not rooted in a children's book or an established pop-culture character, Nausicaä was based on Miyazaki's own comic, which borrowed only names and ideas from older legends. It was his breakthrough and his big opening number, and it remains one of his most striking creations.
Nausicaä lives in harsh times. Centuries after a vicious, world-twisting war, the human race survives in medieval-grade kingdoms and villages, and they fight a losing battle against the giant insects and toxic plants that slowly claim the land. Nausicaä doesn't seem to mind so much. She's the princess of a small valley village, but she spends her days exploring and foraging in the toxic surroundings. She's even figured out how to placate the enormous creatures called Ohm. Fierce, multi-eyed, and pillbug-shaped, the Ohm seem to rule this strange new world—as Nausicaä's visiting uncle Yupa sees firsthand.
This peace cannot last. A massive gunship from the kingdom of Tolmekia crashes in the valley one night, its cargo a captive girl and a mysterious pulsating cocoon. The girl, royalty from the nation of Pejite, dies in the wreckage, but the cocoon seems indestructible. Answers arrive the next day as Tolmekia's Princess Kushana and her troops viciously overrun the valley and claim the cocoon. It holds a giant being, a remnant of the war that devastated the earth, and it's the lynchpin in Kushana's plan to conquer the bug-filled wastelands so that the human race might prosper again. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind drops its heroine into a three-way war between rival nations and the seemingly unstoppable force of a natural world mutated past recognition, and it's rarely at a loss for spectacle. Miyazaki pours on a mixture of medieval politics and World War II mechanization: bulbous gunships shear away windmills as they disgorge an invasion, furred ostrich mounts wear the same flap-sided gasmasks as their human handlers, and two massive bombers clash in a boarding duel above a stormcloud. There's just as much affectionate detail in the skeletal forests and arid wastelands, where deadly pollen wafts like snow and enormous centipedes sweep the skies.
It's a surprisingly violent creation compared to many of Miyazaki's cuddlier films, but Nausicaä doesn't descend into a blunt battle among heroes and villains. Kushana's a ruthless schemer, but she has her reasons. The same goes for the alleged monsters of the apocalypse; ever the environmental advocate, Miyazaki infuses the film with a fearful respect for nature. And Nausicaä is its tireless champion. She wins over everyone from vengeful princes to orphaned fox-squirrels, she understands the giant insects when no one else can, and she's willing to sacrifice herself for the slimmest chance at reconciling the human race with their rapacious bug neighbors. She's almost a patron goddess, a bold, resourceful young woman wise beyond her years and gifted beyond her understanding.
Nausicaä is also the movie's biggest flaw. While it never spoils her (or Kushana) quite as much as Miyazaki's considerably more complicated manga does, Nausicaä's marked a savior time and time again. Her villagers can't help but talk her up at every turn, and a scene where her violent side emerges to wipe out a room of soldiers is flattering and nearly bloodless. The plot even summons up an ancient legend just so Nausicaä can fulfill it. No one actually stands up and proclaims her the Kwisatz Haderach, but the film remains a touch naive about her ability to unify two different worlds. An older Miyazaki took the same themes to more realistic conclusions in Princess Mononoke, relying less on miracles and righteousness. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind finds him younger, brasher, and with an awful lot to say.
Yet Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind never stumbles in its tightrope routine of daring action and contemplative revelations. It's a film with a lot on its mind: the mysteries of the venom forest, the good-natured backstabbing between Kushana and her sidekick Kurotawa, the revenge plotted by the Pejite royal family, and the way Nausicaä might just save the world . She's a pure ideal, a hopeful symbol grating at some moments and unshakably powerful at others.
In other words, this is the sort of movie a director makes when another one isn't guaranteed. When he fashioned Nausicaä, Miyazaki had no studio of his own, no assurances that his most personal creation yet wouldn't flop and send him back to television work or Lupin films. There's a wealth of ideas and imagery in Nausicaä, and much of it's introduced with a pace that may leave newcomers confused. Yet Miyazaki's overloaded vision leaves us fascinated as well. His later films are smoother, gentler, and less ham-handed in adoring their heroines, but none of them has quite the same impact.
Disney's Blu-Ray preserves all of that impact nicely. The transfer makes the film's marvelous detail almost a little too clear—the animation is superb, but it's a thirty-year-old movie, and you'll see that in the grain and occasional specks of the actual cels. The audio mix is also rich, even if it makes some of Jo Hisaishi's simpler beats sound like old video-game tunes. The dub shows Disney's typical fondness for major names, and it works out: Patrick Stewart's a good Yupa, Uma Thurman gives Kushana a detached sense of savagery, and Shia LaBeouf is tolerable as Prince Asbel. As Nausicaä, Allison Lohman has the toughest job in the cast, but she slips only when forced to hit the film's most melodramatic highs. Some may prefer the Japanese voice acting, with Goro Naya as Lord Yupa and Sumi Shimamoto as Nausicaä, though the vocal mix is, of course, just as old as the film.
Disney's Blu-Ray release includes a brief examination of the movie with remarks from Miyazaki and comments from animation historian Charles Solomon, who points out just how well Miyazaki slid into the role of director. The set also has the storyboards, a World of Ghibli mini-doc, and the interviews from Disney's older release. Aside from the translation slacking off during the credits, there isn't much missing. All it lacks is a copy of the carelessly abridged Warriors of the Wind cut that New World Pictures released in the 1980s. Yes, the one where Nausicaä is renamed “Zandra” and a third of the plot is gone. Can't imagine why Disney wouldn't throw that on the Blu-Ray.
Nausicaä, in her relentless and bothersome sacrifice, is a big part of that. A more restrained movie wouldn't have hit with the same earnest force, while a more cautious director wouldn't have stacked the film so richly. That uncompromised vision made Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind a landmark film for Miyazaki and the whole of animation, and it's easy to see why.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A magnificently imagined world with a fascinating, nuanced tale at its center
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