Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Review

Although director Hayao Miyazaki had already made one feature length film that bears many of his hallmark animation techniques and character types, Castle of Cagliostro was based on work by another artist – Monkey Punch’s Lupin III (it in turn being inspired by the pulp adventures of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin) - so it is his 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that is more often regarded as the Japanese animation master’s first film. It’s certainly a more personal film than the cartoon capers of Castle of Cagliostro, showing many themes and techniques that would be expanded upon in subsequent works and would come to define the style and ethos of Studio Ghibli that sets it apart from other animation studios.

The principal theme of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and one that is treated seriously even in Miyazaki’s more apparently light-hearted films, is based on environmental issues, depicting a post-apocalyptic world that has seen the destruction of an ecosystem which, if it is not further hindered by mankind, is being repaired through a Gaian homeostasis – the living planet maintaining climatic equilibrium through cleansing and purification against those damages inflicted by man’s abuses. Typically, Miyazaki tackles such issues in a thrilling and non-didactic manner, incorporating fantastical, magical and mythological elements with more down-to-earth sentiments such as the strengths to be gained from families, friends and the communities working together in common purpose to achieve a greater good. The people of the Valley of the Wind are a small agrarian community, sheltered from the rest of the world which has been devastated by a vast conflict, culminating a thousand years previously in the destruction of much of the earth through Seven Days of Fire, where powerful weapons of long forgotten technologies and legendary Giant Warriors wreaked havoc across the planet. A vast, growing Sea of Corruption of poisonous plants and giant insects is slowly consuming what remains of the fragile ecosystem and the people of the Valley of the Wind work hard to protect their land and crops from the deadly airborne spores given off from the poisonous flora. But there is a greater danger threatening the people of the valley – the ambition of the Torumekian Empire. The Torumekians have discovered in Pejite an embryonic Warrior, one of the deadly weapons that caused the global catastrophe and with it, they intend to fight back the encroaching jungle. When their airship carrying the Warrior and Pejite prisoners crashes into the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä – the daughter of King Jihl – finds herself and her people caught-up in their war, a war that Nausicaä, through her studies of the Sea of Corruption, believes is unnecessary.

Miyazaki’s simplified character designs for the animation show a strong influence of the French clear-line style evident in Hergé’s Tintin, but with the science-fiction/fantasy setting it is much more reminiscent of Moebius’ Arzach, particularly in the flying sequences and the wing-design of Nausicaä’s Mehve glider – (the two artists have a mutual admiration and were subject to a joint exhibition in Paris recently). Miyazaki’s own drawing style, seen in the manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is much more detailed, and the story infinitely more complex. The filmed version barely makes up the first quarter of a graphic work that is comparable with the vast scope of The Lord of the Rings – and even this small section of the complete work (although the manga wasn’t completed until well after the making of the film) is streamlined, dropping the political intrigues and machinations of the Torumekian Royal Family and completely excising the major war with the evil Dorok Empire. But what the animation loses thorough simplification of the sprawling scope of the manga and the character of Miyazaki’s own drawings, it more than makes up in concision of theme and the magical qualities of sound, colour and movement that brings Miyazaki’s creations to life. There is a pure grace in the film’s flying sequences and that beautiful fluidity of movement throughout that really distinguishes Miyazaki’s animation work from his contemporaries. Particularly notable in their animated counterparts are Nausicaä’s scenes with Asbel in the Sea of Corruption, the dynamic flying sequences and the watercolour effects of the dream and prophesy sequences set to a beautiful chant sung by a child, one of the highlights of the marvellous score by Joe Hisaishi.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not Hayao Miyazaki’s best work in animation, but it is a vital component for understanding the themes developed in his later films. It’s certainly one of his most personal films, not necessarily on an autobiographical level, but in it being a pure, concentrated distillation of themes that he has developed in later works – the flying adventures of ancient planes in Porco Rosso, the ecological and environmental issues of Princess Mononoke, the coming of age dramas of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away – the roots of all these films can be traced back to their source in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The very fact that it remains the director’s only work in the comic medium is also indicative of how personal the material and its themes are. The later films are certainly more refined in their character designs, plotting and animation techniques, but the most common element to Miyazaki’s films is just as apparent here as in later films – the sense of magic and wonder in which the director – in his creation of fabulous creatures and landscapes – captures the sheer wonder, beauty and majesty of nature and the place of human beings in that world – brilliantly summarised in the final frame of the film’s closing titles (make sure you watch this one right through), and in that respect at least, Nausicaä is second only to Miyazaki’s true masterpiece, My Neighbour Totoro.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was previously released in the west on VHS in the truncated form of Warriors of the Wind - and even in that mutilated form the film’s brilliance is clearly evident, it certainly being a prized film in my VHS collection when few of Miyazaki's films were unavailable in any English format. It’s released now in its full form on DVD in the United States and Canada by Buena Vista and is presented in a 2-disc set – Disc 1 containing the film and some extra features on a dual layer disc, Disc 2 presenting the whole film in storyboard form on a single layer disc. The DVD is encoded for Region 1.

The video quality of the transfer is truly superb – a clear, stable image with strong colours and clearly defined outlines. Blocks of colour remain smooth and free of flicker, while backgrounds show fine detail and tone definition. There is a hint of grain in one or two scenes – no doubt inherent in the source print materials – but not a mark, scratch or dustspot to mar the beautiful artwork. Neither are there any significant digital artefacts of any kind, although very mild edge enhancement shows up more noticeably on a computer display. The image is perhaps fractionally on the soft side and in some scenes it might not be quite as sharp as the Japanese Region 2, but without having these to compare side-by-side, the difference is marginal and not worth quibbling about. This really looks terrific on Buena Vista’s DVD.

The original Japanese mono soundtrack is included here as Dolby Digital 2.0 and it sounds strong and clear, with only a slight hint of background noise that is not present on the English Dolby Digital 2.0 dub. The Japanese soundtrack would certainly be preferable if you speak Japanese, but the generally strong English soundtrack presents a fine alternative that allows you dispense with the unsightly subtitles which deface the beautiful rendering of the artwork. More on the subtitles in the section below. The voice talent on the English dub is of a high standard indeed. Most notable are Patrick Stewart, who lends his warm tones to Lord Yupa, and Chris Sarandon, who improves immeasurably on the Japanese voice for Kurotowa, and is much more in tune with his sly, scheming and intelligently opportunistic character. Alison Lohman is unfortunately flat and often expressionless during dialogue as Nausicaä (although going by the Behind the Microphone feature, the dubbing director seems to be at fault here), but fares better in the action sequences. She does however bring a little more maturity to the character that would be more appropriate to western ears than the comparably more childish-sounding Japanese voice for Nausicaä.

Optional literal English subtitles are provided, as well as English hard of hearing subtitles, which transliterate the English dub. Subtitles are yellow and are unfortunately placed very high in the frame, effectively obscuring almost the bottom third of the picture (see subtitles sample below). These are extremely distracting and, although it’s not perfect, I’d recommend the English dub over the subtitle option. “Purists” might object, but if you are a purist, you’d be watching the film as it was intended – ie. watching it as opposed to reading it. The subtitles here only serve to obscure Miyazaki’s beautiful character designs, subtle expressions and fluid movements and that should be avoided if possible. There are some differences in the wording and pronunciation. The English voice dub refers to an ‘Ohmu’ as an ‘Ohm’, but it is spelt ‘Ohmu’ in both subtitle tracks. The ‘Sea of Corruption’ as it was known in the original translation of the manga, is called the ‘Sea of Decay’ in the English subtitles here and, rather less effectively I feel, as the ‘Toxic Jungle’ in the English dub.

Behind The Microphone (7:46)
Although there is big-name acting talent working on the English dub, not everyone is experienced in voice-acting. Here they relate their experiences of voicing their characters and how honoured they feel to be doing it for a Miyazaki film.

The Birth Story of Studio Ghibli (27:44)
This is a super little Japanese documentary, overdubbed in English, covering the origins of the famous animation studio and a look over all their films up to Princess Mononoke.

Original Japanese Trailer and TV Spots (8:29)
A variety of trailers, TV spots, advertising spots, images and artwork.

Disc 2 contains the full film in storyboard format, with the same language and subtitle options as the main feature. This is not multi-angled with the feature as it is on the Japanese edition. The storyboards, featuring Miyazaki’s own drawings are absolutely beautiful and so detailed – down to the smallest of expressions, gestures and movements – that if you play them in fast-forward, they flow like animatics.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a fabulously rich piece of work that has something for audiences of every age. Anyone can relate to the film as an exciting and colourful science-fiction action adventure, filled with fabulous creatures, thrilling aviation sequences and familiar character types. Yet there are serious issues broached here regarding the role of the individual as part of a community, their place in world around them and the effect their actions have on the environment. It’s a measure of the greatness of the film that it broaches these subjects without condescension or didacticism or the need to behave merely as a cartoon entertainment. Buena Vista’s Special Edition 2-disc DVD set presents the film marvellously with a range of options and a worthwhile set of extra features that should keep most people happy.

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