Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre
Previous Life Lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his various films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. Last time we saw an artist-for-hire determined to do put the best version of himself into his adaptation, even if that meant some serious rebuilding. Now, we set our sights on his first “original” (it’s complicated) movie.
THE FILM: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Hayao Miyazaki’s 2nd feature film is as impressive and definitive a “so, that’s what this dude is about” movie as it gets. Not that he didn’t put his own stamp on Monkey Punch’s Lupin III and company with Cagliostro, but you can draw pretty much a straight line from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to many of the themes and motifs (and even several character archetypes) of Princess Mononoke.
Audiences were first introduced to Princess Nausicaä and her toxic post-apocalyptic world on the pages of Animage in 1982, in a serialized manga that began life as a rejected film pitch (the studio didn’t want to take a risk on something not based on a comic — how about that?). Ironically, the story was a runaway success, becoming the magazine’s most popular staple, and movie offers followed close behind. While The Castle of Cagliostro hadn’t been a hit, the Nausicaä manga’s popularity gave Miyazaki the leverage to agree to a film adaptation of his story (which wouldn’t see a conclusion on the page until 1994) on the condition he get to direct.
Set a thousand years after a devastating war known as “The Seven Days of Fire,” Nausicaä follows the young princess of a small sheltered valley kingdom that gets caught up in a struggle between violent neighboring states, kaiju-sized insects, and ancient war machines. Miyazaki had zeroed in on his recurring pillars of “War bad, People stupid (but sometimes good), Flying good, Nature great” and flexes his pulp adventure muscles in multiple set pieces that still impress even after seeing him work with much bigger budgets. But in spite of the magnificent sights of battling airships and titanic insect charges, Miyazaki’s focus is on the emotional and human cost of these explosions of violence. He’s proven himself to be one of the best architects of animated action in a generation, and this movie seems both aware of this ability as well as actively terrified and repulsed by it. We’re constantly reminded of how fragile these characters are, and how easily the scraps of world they’ve rebuilt could crumble.
What the film revels in, in contrast, are the quiet moments of solitary exploration or contemplation, between the stolen moments in Nausicaä’s hidden laboratory or in the calm of two characters from opposing factions conversing before the storm breaks. The movie is a very streamlined version of a narrative that would be expanded in the manga, but it’s still a full and complex portrait of living in the ashes of a lost world. There are inhuman terrors and bleakly honest looks at the ravages of humanity’s worst impulses, but there’s also indescribable beauty to be found.
And that’s no accident. Miyazaki has been blunt about some of his earliest memories being of the bombed-out ruins of cities targeted by the Allied forces of WWII, and this is where I’d argue the lesson of Nausicaä lies. Again and again, the film denounces conquest and military intervention, but there’s another half of this equation that’s — coincidentally — echoed by Pixar’s own post-apocalyptic (albeit more comedically upbeat and explicitly romantic) Wall*E: When Jeff Garlin’s Captain McCrea tells the HAL-esque ship’s computer “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” It’s easy to dismiss that as an easy or a cliched sentiment, but there’s power and purpose in that desire — and this movie believes that down to its bones.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has become very much one of the standby genre settings in recent years, so much so that you have to distinguish between whether you’re referring to the acclaimed HBO show or the acclaimed Playstation games when you talk about The Last of Us. But where so many of the examples du jour are about the things we lose at the end of the world, Miyazaki tells us what we still have to gain. Nausicaä teaches us that life is an act of creation, of indomitable will in trying to dig your way out, and the even more stubborn hope that the seeds you plant will someday see the sun.
Living means building something that should outlast yourself, even after the end of the world. And while we’ve already mentioned how Miyazaki clearly takes this to heart (to the point of it being an explicit goal of his upcoming and likely final film), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind tells us this lesson has been with him maybe since the very beginning.
Next Up: Brendan Foley will examine what we can learn while soaring through the clouds of Laputa: Castle in the Sky.