No-one could ever accuse Hayao Miyazaki of aiming low. His second full-length feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is a hugely ambitious epic combining environmentalism, gender politics and the respective ethics of war and pacifism. And while like so many epics it is ultimately loose and sprawling, it contains all the classic ingredients which have made him the godfather of modern Japanese animation.
The first and most obvious of these ingredients is the animation itself. Although it might not have the bright, glossy sheen of Miyazaki's more recent offerings, there can be no denying that Nausicaa looks fantastic. The detail in every frame is immaculate, accurately capturing every changing hue in the ohmu's eyes or every strand of the princess' billowing hair. The colour scheme blends pale pastel shades for the Valley of the Wind with the ethereal blues of the underground forest and the sharper, more metallic tones of the ohmu and aeroplanes.
What makes Miyazaki's animation distinctive is his ability to make the beautiful seem creepy and vice versa without any real change in physical composition. What we initially view as being inherently malicious or horrid (like the charging ohmu) eventually reveal themselves as being good-natured, albeit easily led. Likewise when the Tolmekians arrive, their advanced technology and regal uniforms lead them to appear benevolent and civilised. But long before the Giant Warrior has been prematurely raised, we understand where their loyalties and intentions truly lie.
There are a number of through-lines in Nausicaa to Miyazaki's later, better works. As in Princess Mononoke, the central protagonist is a woman who defies traditional gender roles, a pacifist who hates bloodshed but is willing to fight to the death to protect her people. Both films also feature a domineering matriarch seeking to use the power of ancient gods for world domination. And like Porco Rosso, the film sees Miyazaki playing out his obsession with flight, giving us amazing flying machines and jet-powered gliders whose designs are enough to take one's breath away.
Like so much of Miyazaki's work, there are clear hints of Western film and literature in the story and characters of Nausicaa. But where later works would draw heavily on Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, the biggest influence in this case is the original Star Wars trilogy. The opening section, with Nausicaa wandering through the murky forest in her strange mask, recalls the mynocks sequence in The Empire Strikes Back. The design of the Pejitan ship bears a striking resemblance to Jabba's cruise vessel during the sarlacc scenes in Return of the Jedi. And Lady Kushana, with her high neckbrace and bionic limbs, is a clear stand-in for Darth Vader.
Despite these prominent overtones of space opera, Nausicaa is much less Star Wars than Silent Running when it comes to its themes and substance. The film is a brilliantly subtle look at environmental politics and the human impact on nature. Aside from making more general points about the need for humans and nature to live side by side and depend upon each other, it insightfully comments on Man's ability to misinterpret His surroundings in a way which is calamitous for both sides.
The thrust of Nausicaa is not so much that humans exploit their surroundings, but that they misunderstand them. The film makes no bones about humans being the cause of the Sea of Decay, but it doesn't simply condemn the existing foundations of civilisation and lay out an unrealistic alternative. On the one hand, we are shown that none of the races in this future are safe from the Sea of Decay: even the Valley of the Wind, with its seeming harmony and economy of nature, is rooted in the same toxic soil that covers the whole earth. On the other hand, there is the underground, non-toxic forest in the middle of the Sea of Decay. This symbolises the ability in nature and in humans for something good to come out of the most evil and toxic of places.
The film argues that the means of judgement humans employ and the attitudes they take in doing so are every bit as important as the actual actions they take. The problem is not humans using or developing technology, whether windmills or weapons; it is the ends which they serve and the methods of thinking which such decisions cultivate. Lady Kushana's attempts to use the Giant Warrior to fight off the ohmu and the Sea of Decay may be motivated by moral reasons, at least initially. But her efforts are ultimately in vain because they become driven not only by selfish political gain but an ignorance of the true nature of the environment and the insects that inhabit it.
Although the film is set in a post-apocalyptic future, the culture of Nausicaa is a blend of mediaeval and modern in terms of its design. The film counterpoints the sedentary lifestyle of the peasant communities in the Valley of the Wind with the WWI-like uniforms worn by the Tolmekian army. In addition to the universal environmental issues facing humanity, we have societies progressing through different stages of economic development, and their attitudes towards their surroundings change. Those in the Valley of the Wind utilise nature without manipulating it, while the Tolmekians use their planes and weapons to brush aside any aspect which opposes them.
In amongst all this cutting social and political analysis, we have a series of believable relationships which anchor the themes of the film. The 'romance' between Princess Nausicaa and Asbel never feels contrived and does not follow the predictable course of the male and female protagonists in other such films (Ferngully especially). Like all Miyazaki's works there is an inherent respect for both woman and the elderly, both of whom demonstrate their resilience and usefulness at key points in the storyline. The supporting cast are all believable, with even the smallest of characters feeling or at least appearing distinctive.
There are, a couple of flaws with Nausicaa, one contextual and one general. The contextual flaw is the soundtrack, which comprises keyboard or synth-based dance pop that never gels with the main action sequences. Rather like Giorgio Moroder's restructuring of Metropolis, the addition of 1980s keyboard instrumentals to the flying sequences detracts from what we are seeing rather than enhance it, and this is is the one aspect of Nausicaa that hasn't dated well.
The more general complaint is one of narrative structure. In the last half hour the film is cutting between so many different aspects of the final confrontation that the plot becomes a bit too much of a jumble. We can just about follow what is going on, but we have to balance so much that all the potentially impressive sequences sort of pass us by. The death of the Giant Warrior, which resembles Ctuhlu from the work of H. P. Lovecraft, is only on screen for a couple of minutes, and its death seems rather too hasty considering the huge amount of build-up.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a very good, brilliantly-made film which hints at the future greatness of Miyazaki as both a storyteller and animator. Despite its narrative shortcomings and dated soundtrack, it is every bit as visually ravishing as it was 27 years ago, and its thematic richness is plain for all to see. It's not Princess Mononoke, or Spirited Away, but it is an entertaining and enlightening introduction to a truly magical career.