Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not the first Studio Ghibli movie, but it is considered the first one. Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio, was founded in 1985 after Nausicaä was released. However, because it is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki to present the themes and types of stories present in his later work, Nausicaä has retroactively been made a part of the Ghibli canon. It fits perfectly, and for most fans, they don’t even notice the difference in dates.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the story of Princess Nausicaä, a teenage girl who lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape. A thousand years have passed since the Seven Days of Fire when human civilization was reduced to rubble due to their centuries of consumption and pollution. Nausicaä lives in the hidden enclave of the Valley of the Wind, where the farmland has been made fertile again, and the people live in relative peace. This all changes when a ship from Tolmekia crashes in the Valley, and the embryo of the mythical Giant Warrior is found on board. Nausicaä and her people are pulled into an escalating conflict between the Tolmekians and their enemies in Pejite. The two are causing more harm to the environment through their battle, and Nausicaä must find a way to end this war once and for all.
If you are familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s work, you can see the seeds of what would come later. This is the first film really driven by his personal vision. Miyazaki will come back to stories centered around humanity’s relationship with the environment and how we are often the villains in those stories. At first, the audience naturally sees giant insects and a creeping poisonous mold as horrors to be overcome. As we explore the world further and examining the actions of the Tolmekians, it becomes more apparent that the real monsters are the societies unable to see how their actions directly lead to the further destruction of their planet. While dangerous, the natural world is merely trying to protect itself against the significant threat of humans.
Nausicaä is most similar to Princess Mononoke, with that female protagonist serving as a darker version of Princess Nausicaä. The teenage girl is a very typical Japanese anime heroine, plucky, and resourceful, focused on doing what is right. No matter how dire the situation, Nausicaä tries to find the middle ground the helps the natural world and humans, trying to explain to the latter group why they must stop. Nausicaä never feels like a phony character but very earnest and genuine in how she addresses those she loves and those she must confront.
Nausicaä has had an influence outside Studio Ghibli, with Hironobu Sakaguchi citing it as a significant influence on his Final Fantasy video game series. The movie’s insect creatures are said to be referenced in the production design of the Metal Slug series. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been noted to share many similarities between its protagonist Rey and Princess Nausicaä. The film is excellent though I think the decades have led its story to feel like well-tread territory. Many elements of the plot have been recycled in one form or another in popular Japanese and American media, so watching it a contemporary context doesn’t feel as fresh as it might have in 1984. It doesn’t diminish the quality of the craft that went into the worldbuilding and animation, but I wouldn’t fault someone for feeling checked out of the story if they watch a lot of contemporary science fiction/fantasy.
I won’t say that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is my favorite Miyazaki film that will come later, but it laid the groundwork for the quality of picture the director was devoted to making. He wasn’t interested in talking down to his audience, and he desired to communicate his beliefs on humanity and nature without being preachy. He saw value in female heroes standing up to brutal systems, and, like in Mononoke, we have a militaristic female character that serves as a foil to the heroine. While American animation was in a strange place in the early 1980s, Miyazaki carved out his own niche and would be extremely prolific in the years to come.