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July 16th, 1988. An atomic bomb destroys Tokyo in one of anime’s most iconic openings of all time. Akira, while not a Miyazaki film, or even a Ghibli film, is an important thematic touchstone for us to consider, because the imagery here reaches the core of many of Japan’s most iconic pop culture landmarks. Whether it be Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, even Dragon Ball Z, mass destruction via bombs, weaponry, or atomic power is heavily present in Japanese culture. This is in no small part due to the horrors of war the country faced with the relentless American air raids on non-combatants in almost every Japanese city during 1944 and ‘45 and the subsequent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With that social consciousness, coupled with a culture that holds art, innovation, cuteness, and a nostalgia for pre-war Japan to the highest esteem, it’s not surprising that the greatest animator of our time would arise out of that generation. But while Hayao Miyazaki’s films were absolutely shaped by the world at war he was born into, what sets his work apart is the paradoxical beauty he finds at the heart of these cataclysms, and there is perhaps no greater example of this than his Odyssey, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Welcome to the Director Project, a collection of video essays dissecting the works of a new director each month. This month, we’re highlighting the work of acclaimed animator, Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll find the full playlist here. My name is Dakota! Don’t forget to drop a like if you enjoy the video!
Hayao Miyazaki was born on January 5th, 1941, a year that marked the height of Japanese Imperialism and economy. But by age four, Japan would crumble beneath the might of the bombings and air raids in each and every city, aside from Kyoto. There is little doubt that this period of warfare, even at such a young age, would heavily impact Miyazaki’s outlook on the world. The Director commented “I remember the air raids. I see my street burning.” This first-hand imagery of a world on fire would give Miyazaki’s work a level of relevance that stands the test of time, and would allow him to create the believable, imaginative settings that pervade his canon.
But before Miyazaki had any desire to animate his art, his chosen career path was that of a mangaka, or a manga artist and writer, spending much of his young years creating comic books, and this early pursuit would lead him to create, at the very least, two of his greatest works. By age 22, however, Hayao joined the staff of Toei Animation, where he worked as an inbetweener, and his love for the fluidity of the animation medium began in earnest. This is also where he would meet the most important partner in his career, his Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata.
The now iconic opening of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira arrived in 1988, but incredibly, in Miyazaki’s debut directorial work an entire decade earlier, we see nearly the exact same imagery. The very first scene of Nippon Animation’s 26 episode run of 1978’s Future Boy Conan sees atomic bombs destroy the face of planet earth. Through the ruins, however, we see a world beginning to regrow, after some 20 years have passed. This would be the very start of Miyazaki’s visible fascination with a world recovering from destruction, perhaps a reflection of the post-war Japan that he grew up in.
These remnants of a destroyed world, or the ruins of post-war or forgotten civilizations, would be an identifiable trait in much of Miyazaki’s work. A year later, in 1979, Hayao Miyazaki’s first film would include ancient Roman ruins in Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro, and while this isn’t central to that film’s plot, it’s a worldbuilding tool that the director would employ many times throughout his career to provide a layer of depth and a sense of untold history to the worlds he created. This theme that life can continue. No, that it must continue, despite apocalypses big or small, is pivotal to understanding who Miyazaki is as a director, an artist, and a person.
Miyazaki would take some time off of animating films after The Castle of Cagliostro and return to his first love, manga. He would begin work on a series for the magazine Animage where he would serialize perhaps the most important story in his career. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a masterpiece in worldbuilding and themes, would begin serialization in 1982, and Miyazaki would work on it on and off for almost 12 years, between his work on future films. Toshio Suzuki, an editor at Animage, convinced Miyazaki there was enough there in his initial chapters of Nausicaä to create a film from it. Despite being burned out by the poor box-office turnout from his first film, he would throw his heart into his anime adaptation of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. With its subsequent success, this film not only made it possible for Studio Ghibli to exist, but would provide a thematic roadmap for Hayao Miyazaki to follow throughout the rest of his filmmaking career.
Nausicaä, in brief, is the story of a young princess from a small town in the Valley of the Wind, in a world 1000 years after a cataclysmic apocalypse leaves the earth scoured and toxic, fighting to keep the peace between warring nations of man and trying to halt their efforts in destroying the toxic jungle. The very first shots see a man riding into a desolate town covered in sickly spores, only to find its inhabitants dead. The spores, spread by the ever growing Toxic Jungle via the wind, we learn will soon overtake much of the inhabited cities and towns still left on the planet. It forces the inhabitants, when venturing near the spores, Jungle, or fauna, to wear gas masks to strain out the toxins in the air. This small pocket of desolation we see in the beginning is soon explained to be the world 1000 years post-war, and while it’s never claimed to be nuclear warfare, what’s showcased speaks volumes.
We learn that humanity found a way to create giant warriors, a weaponry unique to the worldbuilding of this film, whose awesome power leaves the world in a state of nuclear winter after the so-called 7 days of fire. The level of thought put into these chain of events is startling and terrifying, when one pulls the thread of what it could mean for humanity. The firebombing of several German and Japanese cities in World War 2, including the likes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, created intense day-long firestorms that would rage throughout cities and would inject soot into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, causing crop failure and famine. If what the 7 days of fire suggests is accurate, and the entire world was subjected to the atomic-esque might of the giant warriors, then a worldwide firestorm could indeed cause a nuclear winter event, blotting out sunlight, and creating the bleak world we see in Nausicaä. The resulting toxicity due to radiation poisoning could very well keep the world in a state of decay for millennia afterwards. And that’s the world our fair, strong, and noble princess inhabits. The destructive power of these great warriors is showcased near the end of the film, and the imagery is unmistakably reminiscent of atomic power.
The idea of a ruined world, the ruins of a lost society, forgotten establishments, or even of towns newly destroyed, are a hallmark of Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work, appearing in many of his greatest films. For the director, it forms a sense of nostalgia for times past, or for things forgotten, and develops into a theme of the naturalistic world regrowing or mankind healing despite the chaos. And throughout all the destruction in Miyazaki’s work, it’s complimented with intense scenes of beauty, because those fleeting moments of joy are what are worth focusing on.
Almost immediately upon introducing us to Nausicaä, we see she isn’t afraid of the gigantic insectoid life that pervades her world, nor does she shy away from the glowing, alien flora that grows all around her. She takes samples for reasons that aren’t yet clear to the audience. What’s so striking about Nausicaä, though, is the joy and wonder she exudes amongst the ruins of a world long forgotten. We catch her soaring along the wind with her glider, dancing amidst toxic pollen, and resting in a pool of it, seemingly without a worry in the world. “It’s so beautiful.” We learn later that she has discovered that beneath the toxic water and soil layer present on the earth, is a new, clean layer. She explains that the trees of the toxic jungle have absorbed man’s pollution, petrifying the wood, and as they crumble, create the means for fresh water and soil to give way beneath the layer of the jungle.
This animism, the conscious regrowth of the planet, is shepherded by the monstrous ohm, giant insects that have withstood the toxic atmosphere created after the 7 Days of Fire. Another in a string of realisms the director injects into his work. The ohms, and all other insect lifeforms present in the film, are covered in an exoskeletal carapace. Like today’s cockroaches, who would be one of the few species to live past nuclear war, these appear to be highly evolved versions of insects we have on earth today. They have the conscious knowledge, it seems, that the toxic jungle’s existence is key to the planet’s survival, despite the constant efforts by man to stamp it out. And thus man is depicted as constantly enraging the great ohm, and the cycle seems fraught to extend forever, if Nausicaä is unable to talk sense into them, or charm the ohm back to returning to the jungle. This naturalistic, and animistic world would help spawn other environmentally conscious Miyazaki works, like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and even My Neighbor Totoro.
Princess Nausicaä is a fiercely driven leader, mediator, and pacifist. After the murder of her father by Tolmekian soldiers, she goes on a brief stint of rampage. She saw red, not dissimilar to the red eyes of the ohm, but was quelled by Lord Yupa, who through his own pacifism, was able to allow her to see that killing is senseless. She cries and utters a phrase you could see Miyazaki saying; “no more killing. It has to stop.” It’s a heartfelt plea that is reiterated throughout the film, and being that Nausicaä is the closest humanity has of surviving this world for much longer, the fighting and struggles of the various tribes and nations are exceptionally frustrating. In Japanese culture, which is starkly patriarchal, female protagonists are hard to come by, but ones who’re as strong and as wise as Nausicaä were nearly unheard of in pre-Ghibli anime. And yet she seems to be the roadmap for many of Miyazaki’s most memorable characters: Sheeta, Mei, Kiki, Princess Mononoke, and Chihiro, just to name a few.
Another interesting parallel between Nausicaä and much of Miyazaki’s canon, going all the way back to his early television series, is that of airships and planes. They are perhaps the single most identifiable trait to Miyazaki’s work, and they prove to be the director’s greatest fascination. Of his 11 films, only 1 doesn’t include a plane of any kind, and that’s because it took place in the 14th century. Nausicaä, though, gives us a bridge between the beauty of flight and the monstrous varieties that are built for shuttling destruction. Miyazaki’s obsession with planes is a complicated thing to break down, as he paradoxically loves their beauty, and it offers the characters a sense of freedom, but he isn’t shy to display the destruction they bring during times of war. Hayao’s father owned an airplane parts manufacturing company during World War II called Miyazaki Airplane, which would provide much of Japan’s fan belts and ammunition, particularly for the Mitsubishi Zero, the creation of which is the focal point of Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises. It provided his family incredible wealth during one of the nation’s darkest times. With his strong anti-war stance, it’s difficult not to believe his consistent depiction of these flying machines is anything but a constant reminder of his family’s legacy, a coping mechanism, and perhaps to some degree an apology for the destruction and death that helped his family prosper.
Many who watch Miyazaki’s work in release order note the dissonance that his first film, The Castle of Cagliostro, has with the rest of his films. It’s the most unique in the sense that his artistic style hadn’t been fully developed, nor does it connect thematically with much of his work period. That isn’t the case with his second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which many claim to be Miyazaki’s first true Studio Ghibli production. This is only true in the sense that it was later bought and distributed under the Ghibli banner. Either way, Nausicaä is essential to Ghibli’s history, and Miyazaki’s output with the Studio. The film was such a success, it facilitated the formation of Ghibli, alongside producer Toshio Suzuki and fellow director Isao Takahata. It put Miyazaki’s name on the map as an up and coming director to watch out for, although Hayao was already 44 years of age at the time. But most impressively, Nausicaä appears to be the spiritual backbone of the company’s vision, one of pushing for beauty and life, amidst times of strife.
The wind itself seems to be a character and theme worth discussing, in Nausicaä, and beyond, as it’s a vessel for life to disseminate. Nausicaä is from the Valley of the Wind, which appears to be a wonderfully cultivated and prosperous area, with a forest that’s clean of the toxic spores so prevalent everywhere else. We see they utilize multiple windmills throughout their small town, though it’s not certain what their purposes are. Are they a means for clean energy? Do they grind grain? Do they pump water for the village? Either way, the wind brings life to their small valley, a paradisaic oasis in a cruel world. Possibly due in part to the windmills, Nausicaä discovers that the well water grows toxin-free plant life. The other side to the wind is that, while it spreads life, it also brings the deadly spores to their land, and the warships to their doorstep. The wind is such an integral part of their livelihood that, when it stops blowing at the end of the film, it’s an immediate cause for alarm. It’s as if the world is telling man that it can no longer live with the insects, that it is no longer allowing them to live in harmony with nature, as man has become an active antagonist of it. But the wind returns once Nausicaä sacrifices her life, not only for her people, but for the enraged ohm as well. Nausicaä is a means for life to continue harmoniously, and with the ohm’s revival of her, the wind comes back in force. The imagery is similar to the vision she has earlier, a vision that I believe has incredible significance to not only this film, but to Studio Ghibli as a whole.
The name Ghibli was given to the company by Hayao Miyazaki after the Italian word, the etymology of which is from Libyan Arabic, meaning a hot desert wind. The idea was that the studio would “blow a new wind through the anime industry,” and it most certainly would. This “hot desert wind” is visualized in Nausicaä’s first vision, alone in a savanna, surrounded by a warm wind. Ghibli was also the name of an airplane model made by the Italian company Caproni, another apt bookend to Miyazaki’s work, considering Caproni’s inclusion in The Wind Rises.
Nearly every major theme in Miyazaki’s Ghibli filmography can be traced back to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Ruins or forgotten civilizations. Strong female protagonists. Strong female antagonists. Planes. Cuteness. Environmental or animistic messages. Anti-war sentiments. Royalty or nobility. Fantasy settings or fantastical elements. Respected elder characters. Children helping drive the plot. Also, what’s the significance with these red earrings that pop up every now and then? The film balances all these themes handily, and creates a roadmap for Miyazaki to take and a journey for us to follow.
In his final film, at least for now, The Wind Rises, a central poem echoes back to the life-giving wind in Nausicaä. Translated from French, it reads, “The wind is rising! We must try to live!” Though he was born into a world at war, and spent much of his career animating destruction, chaos, and death, the most important theme in Miyazaki’s work appears to be humanity, and how despite it all we must keep living. The final line in Hayao Miyazaki’s epic 7 volume Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, which he finally finished some 10 years after the film’s release is simple, but poignant. “We must live.”
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