Studio Ghibli is, I don’t suppose many folks round here need telling, the spring from which such wonders as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and (personal favourite coming up) My Neighbor Totoro have flowed. As I understand it, its origins can be traced to the success of a much earlier film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was an adaptation by Hayao Miyazaki (subsequently one of Ghibli’s co-founders) of his own manga.
I’ve never seen the film version of Nausicaa (I’d quite like to now – I assume it’s worth a watch, but maybe someone can confirm?), but I gather it’s a somewhat slimmed down version of the story told in the manga. That’s easy to believe, as said manga covers a lot of ground. Ground that’s so strewn with the themes, preoccupations and tropes that pervade Studio Ghibli’s later output that it feels completely convincing as the seed from which that great tree has grown. It almost feels as if all Miyazaki’s subsequent filmic output is hidden here in the pages of Nausicaa, in embryonic form.
by Hayao Miyazaki, published by Viz
The world has been poisoned (by silly old humans, naturally) and much of it is overgrown by an exotic forest suffused with a toxic miasma. Around the fringes of this forest, competing human kingdoms are engaging in that most popular of human pastimes: war.
The Valley of the Wind is a client state of one of those kingdoms, and its modest military forces are summoned to join the battle. They’re lead by its princess, Nausicaa. She has a unique mystical connection to the forest and particularly its bizarre insectile lifeforms. That’s handy, because one of the warring factions (a faction within a faction, actually) unleashes a biological weapon that dangerously destabilises the status quo.
We’re taken on a convoluted, multi-faceted journey – both in Nausicaa’s company, and that of several other viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict – through the history, politics, cultures and ecology of this far future world. There are sieges, aerial battles, plagues of giant insects, psychic god-emperors, giant war robots and much, much more.
All of which perhaps makes Nausicaa sound like a full-on military science fantasy. The way I read the story, though, that was true only in part. One third part, in fact. Other readers, or its creator for that matter, might not see it this way but I at least was struck by the degree to which Nausicaa combines three different ingredients to produce a whole in which they remain somewhat distinct, not entirely blended but merging into one another. I was so struck by it, in fact, that I’ll just talk about those three elements for the rest of this column, which may or may not be a good idea: it rather undersells the scope and intricacy of Miyazaki’s creation and story-telling, perhaps, but hopefully it also hints at those same qualities, and at the complexity that reveals itself when you give this particular piece of fiction the reflective attention it deserves.
So here we go. Three parts, of which Nausicaa is (for the sake of this argument, anyway; your mileage may vary) built: the aforementioned military science fantasy, environmental fable and epic quest narrative.
I’ll start with the last of them. I suspect there might be fun to be had (for those who like that sort of thing) trying to map Nausicaa onto the primal Hero’s Journey modelled by Joseph Campbell and others. I’m not keen enough on that sort of analysis to work it out in detail, but it’s not hard to spot variations/aspects of some mythic archetypes (mentor, trickster, final guardian and so on) or of certain stages of the traditional Hero’s Journey. Nausicaa herself even undergoes a metaphorical form of death and rebirth at one point, taken out of the mundane world and returned to it with new knowledge and insight. That’s Campbellian hero-stuff of a pure form.
It’s highly effective, at times. It works, in other words, even if you recognise the template. There are sequences, such as a boat journey through the deepest layers of the exotic forest or a late encounter with a strange, obstructive being in his villa, that very much have the qualities of myth – the sense of the numinous, of transformation, of movement through deep, meaningful story – as if they’ve been plucked straight from ancient Homeric or Eastern traditions.
Interwoven with that hero’s quest stuff, we get the environmental fable aspect. This is something that recurs in Miyazaki’s later work, of course, and here it’s not exactly subtle. I’m an even more fully paid-up member of the environmental squad than I am of the geek one, but to be honest eco-message fiction is pretty low down on my list of preferred sub-genres (in fact it’s not on that list at all). And eco-message fiction that invokes mysticism, or implicates it as a solution, almost always grates up against my cold-hearted scientific worldview.
Nausicaa manages (just) to stay on my non-grumpy side by cloaking its eco-message in interesting ideas. The environmental issues herein are not simplistically black and white, and there’s a neat spin on the idea of a self-healing Earth/biosphere, which has echoes of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. And the world-forest itself is inherently fun, though that may be in part because it reminded me of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, which I read at an arguably inappropriate young age and as a result have never quite forgotten (or should that be recovered from?).
All of which leaves us with the military science fantasy, which is my favourite bit of the whole thing. In a sense, it’s the framing device, providing a context and setting for the heroic quest and its environmental implications. But that doesn’t mean it’s in any way under-developed; if anything, it’s the dominant tone and style of the whole comic. And it’s wonderful, if you ask me.
Aircraft – huge, baroque, elaborate aircraft at that – are the dominant technology of war. They are marvelously depicted, and spectacularly choreographed in kinetic dogfights with each other and, on occasion, with giant insects. There are also cavalry mounted on flightless terror birds, dormant (for now!) war robots of gargantuan size, beautifully visualized sieges of stubborn cities, mindless cactoid bersekers, and so much more. Nausicaa is long, but I could have read twice as much of this war-stuff without complaint.
There’s a lot more on offer within these pages than I’ve touched on here, and all of it’s depicted in art that embodies a remorseless attention to detail. A lot of the folk – peoples and individuals – in this imagined world have highly distinctive apparel, weapons and lifestyles, and never once in these hundreds and hundreds of pages are those differences lost sight of, or skimped on. It all feels very, very fully imagined.
Nausicaa contains within it moments, sequences, images and ideas that are just wonderful. The whole package is very good, but there are individual narrative, visual or imaginative elements that transcend good, and become profoundly memorable. It never quite cohered into a unified masterpiece for me, but it was unfailingly fascinating, addictive, challenging and enjoyable. Thumbs up, in other words.