Reviewing Ghibli: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (or: a beautiful bird with a broken wing)
Warning: Spoilers abound!
By formal standards “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” is perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s weakest film. I’m probably in a minority in that belief, and I’m not trying to convert anyone. However, only “Ponyo” has a less-defined story, and story never seemed to be the point of “Ponyo” anyway. That film was an exercise in heedless glee. “Nausicaa” is a film that feels weightier than it is. It has a somber tone, almost elegiac at times, but it’s often not entirely clear where the story is moving.
That may seem absurd, of course. Of course “Nausicaa” has a story. The title character is trying to save her homeland from two invasions (one by humans, another by bugs). But there’s really not much beyond that, and very little of the film is spent really advancing or fleshing out that aspect of the story beyond its climax. Compare it to “Princess Mononoke”, which had a well-defined central story (Ashitaka’s quest to save his own life from a curse) that was constantly made meatier and more resonant with every person he meets and place he goes, and as he realizes that he is just a tiny piece of a puzzle that involves gods, wolves, explosives, and gallons and gallons of blood.
None of this is to say that “Nausicaa” is anything less than excellent. By my standards, Miyazaki at his weakest is still something I’m going to love. “Nausiscaa” is a wonderful experience, and Nausicaa herself is the core of its appeal. Miyazaki is renowned for his heroines, and she might just be his best one (I’m partial to “Princess Mononoke’s” San and “Spirited Away’s” Chihiro, but Nausicaa has to be in the conversation).
Nausicaa is plucky, fierce and intelligent. Save for one understandable moment of rage early in the film (when she violently displays just how strong a warrior she is) she tries for the entire film to place logic ahead of emotion, to see the whole picture beyond the jingoistic ramblings of the warmongers that invade her homeland. Movies often ask us to take for granted that characters are good leaders who inspire fierce loyalty. In one splendid scene, Nausicaa justifies with a simple thumbs-up all the love her people have for her.
She’s so easy to root for, so inherently awesome, that she alone elevates the story. That’s not backhanded praise. No matter what she does or where she goes, you want her to succeed, which makes the story all the more involving.
However, taken strictly on its own terms, “Nausicaa” is badly hamstrung by its ending. I think it’s clear that Miyazaki made “Princess Mononoke” as a sort of companion piece to “Nausicaa”, after being able to mull over his storytelling for 13 years, and looking at the films side by side reveals some areas where Miyazaki took a 180 with the storytelling.
Take the Ohm, for example. They’re the giant insects that protect the Sea of Decay. Nausicaa’s realization that the Sea is in fact a necessary part of a massive ecosystem, and the Ohm are simply its protectors, it does stir up sympathy for the Ohm. However, it also confirms that they are entirely innocent. That’s not a bad thing, but good lord, are the animals in “Princess Mononoke,” with their sapient motivations and desires, more interesting.
The primary antagonist, Kushana, is not a one-dimensional villain, but her purpose is. She’s there to disrupt things for Nausicaa. Again, this is not a bad thing. It’s completely fine. But still, she lacks the mystery of Lady Eboshi, who seemed driven entirely by her own motives, which made her unpredictable up until the very end. Kushana is a rock-solid antagonist. Lady Eboshi is a splendid one.
It’s not really fair to just compare “Nausciaa” and “Princess Mononoke” point for point, though, as none of these are really gripes against “Nausicaa” in and of themselves. My biggest issue with “Nausicaa” occurs in the final moments. Miyazaki is rarely one to resort to a deus ex machina, but he does here, with Nausicaa being revived the the Ohm before the film ends rather suddenly. The story had worked itself at that point into a rather tough situation to resolve: How does Miyazaki combine the climactic payoff of a destructive force of nature wreaking havoc with a happy ending? In “Princess Mononoke”, he makes the tougher call (with the Deer God wiping out of the the world around him and causing countless deaths) and still manages to end the film on a hopeful note. With “Nausicaa”, he eschewed the layers he would come to embrace as a filmmaker in favor of a straightforward climax (Nausicaa confronting the invading Ohm directly) and a miraculous resurrection to ensure a happy ending. It’s a rather unsatisfying note to end the film on.
If “Nausicaa”, then, is a rough piece of storytelling, it is still a shining example of Miyazaki’s storytelling vision. In addition to starting his tradition of superb heroines, Nausicaa is a showcase for some of Miyazaki’s most inspired visuals. The opening credits are a beaut, with a lovely, subdued Joe Hiaishi score playing over images of a medieval-style tapestry, coupled with fearsome images of giants walking among wanton destruction. The Sea of Decay is one astonishing image after another, all too living and genuinely frightening and awe-inspiring. Miyazaki decorates the edges of the screen with life, depicting the landscape as a genuine ecosystem.
And the beautiful moment of reverie beneath the Sea of Decay is a classic Miyazaki moment of silence, when he calms the film down and allows everyone to breathe. All his films have these moments. The Train sequence in Spirited Away is probably his best. “Nausicaa’s” is damn moving in its own right.
So, what do I make of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”? I cannot rank it alongside Miyazaki’s topmost tier (for me, that’s “Spirited Away”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, and “Princess Mononoke”). It’s a visionary film with cracks in it. Those cracks don’t ruin it by any means. This film is too audacious, too beautiful to be brought down by a weak ending and some muddled narrative in the middle. It may not soar as high as Miyazaki’s best films, but if you see it in the sky, it will still take your breath away.