How does one begin to explore the depths of an artistic phenomenon so massive that it has literally become the basis upon which people have built their lives? Separating personal attachment from objective exploration of any piece of art is one of the toughest challenges of criticism, but one, as Justine Smith explains that is not entirely necessary. As she so poignantly articulates, “The beauty of the personal, in its imperfect glory, is that it has the power to shake away […] illusions. The personal has an edge of danger and, as a result, can unravel what we have accepted about the applicability of the universality of experience.”
Growing up before the demise of large-scale video rental stores, the small Anime section of tapes at my local Movies Plus was a continuing source of puzzlement. Why were these “cartoons” in their own section, and why was I too young to watch them? R-rated titles like Akira and Perfect Blue seemed like foolproof choices for a kid whose obsessive viewing had embedded permanent tracking lines in all the James Bond and Jackie Chan films the humble establishment kept in stock — but the cover art for the Ghost in the Shell VHS was enough to convince my parents that it was most likely some sort of foreign pornography. Before I was old enough to somehow convince the clerk to look the other way about the whole underage thing, they were swallowed by the evil monster that was Blockbuster, and my anime section, along with any early fascination, had disappeared.
I have no experience with any of the great anime films that define the genre and continue to inspire love in fans across the world. Any acquaintance I do have with anime is heavily restricted to the few television series that were broadcast by [Adult Swim] and Toonami in the early part of the millennium (Full Metal Alchemist, the Gundam series, Lupin the Third, Rurouni Kenshin, etc.). The Studio Ghibli Forever world tour has provided me with an opportunity to shed some light on this glaring blind spot of cinema, while affording me the luxury of experiencing 13 of the studio’s features on the big screen. Sitting among lifelong fans and devotees, I am hoping to discover, as objectively as possible, what makes these films special, and how they are able to inspire such a unique emotional response. Perhaps a deluded attempt to be a part of what I perceive as an international “club” of fans, or merely a means of ticking boxes on my “To Watch” list, my real hope for this project is to gain a small understanding of the big-eyed glowing smile that creeps across fans’ faces when given an opportunity to talk Ghibli.
Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984)
Owing to several good friends who respect cinematic ignorance, the only knowledge I had regarding Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was regarding its strong environmentalist message, and that it is not, in a technical sense, a Ghibli production.
Produced by Topcraft in 1983, the film took nine months to illustrate and assemble — the success upon release became the springboard off of which director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Isao Takahata launched Studio Ghibli. A soaring and expansive adventure, Nausicaä nevertheless carries with it many of the narrative and visual trademarks of the animation giant.
Living in a dystopic future drawn in pastel colors that disguise the seriousness of their plight, the people of the Kingdom of the Valley of the Wind fight off remnants of the “Seven Days Fire,” an event that destroyed most of the world, and left the remaining lands stranded in between vast tracts of toxic jungle. Ruled by the soft-handed King Jihl, the simple farmers of The Valley of the Wind are a gentle, non-warring population. Effectively led by Jihl’s fiercely compassionate daughter, Nausicaä, the agrarian kingdom thrives in peace. When an airship from the neighboring Tolmekia crashes into their world, the villagers find themselves in the middle of a worldwide battle fought on one side by the devious Tolmekian army and on the other by the incredible charisma of Princess Nausicaä.
Apart from the mesmerizing, intricate delicacy of Nausicaä‘s backgrounds and Miyazaki’s singular imagination, the animation seems to benefit the film with respect to an unlikely third area of interest: authenticity. CGI may or may not ruin the world building and landscape creation of the film, but Nausicaä’s character would be nearly obliterated if brought into reality. The Princess is absolutely pure in her willful pursuit of wide-reaching environmentalism. An unattainable blend of youthful adventure and childlike innocence, any actor would struggle to fill her shoes. Quvenzhané Wallis’ Hushpuppy (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is perhaps the closest we will ever get to a “live action” Nausicaä, and yet her freewheeling adventuresomeness will always exist on a plane all its own.
The aesthetics of Nausicaä’s animation find their only rival in early Disney and the likes of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Miyazaki’s neon dreamscape within the Toxic Jungle defies all imagination in its spectacular, expansive grandeur. His love of aeronautical vehicles is apparent in both the whimsical engineering of these fliers and the wide array of airships he and his team have designed for the various tribes. Massive concoctions of WWII aircraft, medieval-looking mechanisms and futuristic jet propulsion yield impressive results that inspire as much fear as they do awe. A love for flight is all but a default setting for Studio Ghibli films — the studio itself having drawn its name from an Italian airplane used in WWII (Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli) — and in spite of Nausicaä‘s technical classification as a Topcraft film, the freedom experienced in the air is enthusiastically apparent.
Expecting a standard Disney narrative mixed with elements of Japanese silliness, any and every conjecture I had gone in with was immediately dashed and blown away. An adventure that lives in a place outside of time, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind offers a haggard reflection of humanity’s dark side before proclaiming hopefulness and love the ultimate victor. Environmentalism delivered via delicate undercurrents of the overall narrative, the film never pushes its idealism on an audience it recognizes as too young to understand. Nausicaä instead focuses on creating an impression of sentience within nature itself, thereby solidifying its “green” message by preaching an unwavering and almost fierce empathy towards every living thing.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.