Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

4 09 2010

There is a majesty about the Ohmu. They are hulking, clumsy beasts. We see them first as a dead remnant, an empty exoskeleton resting underground. We are aware of their strange beauty before we realize the danger they pose, although the sight of the dead remnant has an eerie tone to it: we find both idyllic paradise and oneiric wasteland during the film’s opening minutes. Our protagonist quickly verbalizes this contrast, because this is a film where everything is verbalized, which is its biggest drawback.

Fortunately, the images are so overpowering that the banality of the script turns into some kind of rhythmic chant that pushes the images onward. Which is obviously being lenient on the script. The truth is that Nausicaä plays like a diluted, simplified Princess Mononoke. Which is probably because Princess Mononoke is a complicated, more ambiguous Nausicaä, made a decade later under the influence of Miyazaki’s artistic maturation. But Nausicaä doesn’t really falter in comparison to Mononoke. It does at the level of script and theme. But it doesn’t really falter. Why is this? The images in the earlier film provoke a more acute emotional blow than those found in its seemingly improved successor. Perhaps because it’s not really an improved successor. Not at the level of aesthetic or visual language.

Nausicaä is a continuous barrage of stunning compositions and mounting spectacle. Miyazaki likes to play with large groups — of people, of animals — moving them from one portion of the narrative landscape to another and then getting all of them to clash in a massive climax. It’s an obvious method to build drama and tension, but Miyazaki does it well. He hinges the dramatic swing of his story on the constant traveling undergone by his chosen groups. He puts them on a collision course, jumps from the tale of one to the tale of another, and follows a protagonist that serves as a bridge across all of them. That is the structure of Mononoke and Nausicaä. What the former adds to the latter is a bit nuance. Both present a confrontation between nature and a technocratic warring people. Stuck in the middle are peasants in harmony with the flora and fauna around them. And the protagonist is one of these peasants, the most important one of them all, the individual who will appease the waters of strife, showing both sides how to coexist through his or her own example.

Also in both films, the representatives and leaders of the two opposed human groups are women. Mononoke adds a male mediator between nature girl and technocratic girl, but he’s boring in comparison to them. Nausicaä has no male mediator, although there is a weak male love interest who falls into oblivion after the film is over. What Miyazaki introduced ten years later are blurred borders and confused definitions. Nausicaä pits wholesome nature girl against evil technocratic girl. By the time he made Mononoke, Miyazaki had reworked his archetypes: nature girl is not so wholesome and technocratic girl is not so evil. We are afraid of the former: she’s feral, impulsive, dangerous. We respect the latter: she’s strong, resourceful, gutsy; she manages to spur enthusiasm and loyalty from her fellow women; and the men don’t feel compelled to question her authority. Which is true of the technocratic woman in Nausicaä as well, except she does not command our respect. She’s distant and cold. Only near the end do we sense a conflict in her character. Her counterpart in Mononoke understands her responsibilities. She carries them. She essentially lives for others or at least knows that during her tenure she will have to decide the fate of others. You can view her body, her poise, as a balancing act where the conflict stands on her head, and her incessant concentration seeks to prevent its falling. We don’t get that from her earlier sibling in Nausicaä, who is little more than a caricature.

But nature girl in Nausicaä does not fare as badly. Like the Mononoke technocrat, she balances the conflict on her head. Were it not for this balancing act, she would be dreadfully dull, since she’s a lovely, wholesome, caring, and socially-conscious girl with a taste for revealing skirts and a suspicious lack of undergarments. That last part is not as dull as the rest, but basically, she’s perfect. Except, of course, for her distraught and desperate demeanor. She is willing to die for her cause and essentially kills herself several times. That she survives or only suffers a few wounds does not erase the fact that she is willing to jump from her little glider to another aircraft while being shot at from the aircraft she’s planning to board. The aircraft in question is carrying a little Ohmu. If the little Ohmu is carried to where the aircraft is carrying it, thousands of innocent people will be trampled under the fury of countless adult Ohmus. So she jumps. And it’s not her first act of recklessness. We are used to our movie heroes and heroines being typically heroic. But here we are aware of the heroine’s fragility and so is she of her own mortality. There is no shortage of tears and worried expressions on her part, so she’s not falling back on some stoic routine either: she is simply willing to die to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. This obsessiveness grounds her character. She’s not merely a pure entity walking around the screen in all her pure purity. At least, she’s not just that. She’s earnestly struggling, gnashing her teeth and not giving in. Considering the film grants her a cliché ‘chosen one’ backstory, she makes a surprisingly and visibly pained effort to make good on her prophesied promise.

But we need to go back to the Ohmu, we need to go back to their ugly majesty. Miyazaki movies succeed because, despite all his grating dialogue (and most of it is grating in Nausicaä) and despite his occasionally simple themes (some might disagree with the word “occasionally”) his viewers can and often have a profound reaction to his images. The contrasts are easy enough: the beast is beautiful, hypnotic, monumental, and it is also haggard and unseemly. We have a disgusting insect blown out of proportion so that it turns into a deity. They might not actually be deities, but this is how we perceive them. They are beyond us, beyond human life, like beings from an astral plane. Japanese video games have given me similar imagery to savor: Sin in Final Fantasy X or the giants in Shadow of the Colossus. The Ohmu are noble and good. They attack those who attack them and their counterattack is ruthless hell. Again: the themes and contrasts are simple. Why is my reaction to them so layered? Why is my reaction to everything in Nausicaä so layered?

A gorgeous post-apocalyptic nightmare. That is the world of this film. A small spot provides an idyllic rural scene, full of wind and grass and windmills and other things that flap with the wind and trickling water and little waterfalls. But it is always an imperiled rural scene, imperiled by its outskirts. It’s a familiar tactic, used more obviously in Mononoke: that is, show an idyllic rural scene, then invade it with a foreign body or a foreign conflict that disrupts the peace. The effect is like opening one’s view of a painting from up close. At first, we can only see an isolated portion of the larger canvas. A few people talking, some dogs chasing tails. Then we begin to take a few steps backward. And so on and so forth, until finally, from our new removed vantage point, where we can see the whole painting, the talking people and the chasing dogs are re-contextualized as poor beings trapped inside an epic battle. Our immersion is aided tremendously. Before we know the larger story, the film or the painting has managed to insert us into a tiny niche within the larger story. So when we finally meet up with the larger story, we encounter it from within: we walk out of the tiny niche and into the larger story that now surrounds us.

Our minds can make a world out of anything. Give me a room and two people in it, and that will be my world during the length of the film. Open a window or a door, kick the two people out of the room and into the outlying landscape, and now the world I had built up has been expanded to such a point that I can barely make out its limits, if there are any. A narrative world appears to us as massive if we can imagine every room inside this larger world as a microcosmic world unto itself. That’s when we buckle (but joyously, a cathartic release) under the weight of a movie that presents a constellation of small worlds enjoined in endless combinations. Beginning a story with a small town and then zooming out to expand the geographic reach of the narrative is one of the most common ways to do this. Mononoke does it with no frills. Nausicaä more or less follows suit, except we don’t quite begin in a small town.

We begin, in fact, outside of it, in the gorgeous wasteland that has already been lost to humanity. The idyllic town is only biding its time until the lethal flora reaches its confines. Pollution has made plants and trees into receptacles of death. And it’s these deadly plants and trees — and the horrible insects that live besides them — that the film starts with. When we travel to the idyllic town that has thus far been spared the apocalypse, we are already ever-so-slightly shaded from our initial experience with the dangerous beauty of nature. In these sorts of films, where we know that a great tragedy will befall sooner or later, any idyllic picture is bound to arouse bad vibes. We know the inverse is what the story is really about. So no idyllic picture is really idyllic because its presentation is a portent of its upcoming opposite. Happiness appears twice: at the beginning and at the end. We might have confidence regarding the latter: a happily-ever-after we cannot verify since the credits have begun to roll. But we’re leaving the movie’s grasp at that point. This final happiness has no real staying power. It is the first, initial happiness that is most troubling: the happiness that is the clarion call of tragedy.

Nausicaä mimics this pattern, with an appropriately idyllic opening in a small town being disrupted by outside invaders (a gentle whiff of xenophobia flows in the air, but the suggestion at the end of the conflict is that the simplicity of the small town has been enriched through contact with the outside world, although it is an embattled improvement, a connection to the rest of the world that has been gained in blood). What undermines this pattern is that the memorable prologue which begins the movie is spent amidst ruins and death and killer spores and humongous monsters. These horrible details are part of the idyllic opening. The protagonist enjoys herself in such a scenery. She later reveals to be making scientific attempts to eradicate this same scenery, but we never forget the sight of her relaxing underneath a pile of killer spores. She might want to end the post-apocalypse, but this desire does not prevent her from finding elated solace in the toxic forest.

We get plenty of conventional scenes of rural serenity. But first, we get this: serenity in a wasteland, fascinating ugliness. And the monsters abide by this contrast. Ohmus are admirable because they’re hideous and violent. They can live in a healthy environment. But we mostly see them in sick places with sick fauna, and the same is true of most of the other animals and insects. We should almost wish that improvement never comes for the world of Nausicaä. It is more interesting as a vanishing and ailing place. All of these visions of fascinating ugliness beat at the viewer like consecutive waves. Those red spots in the dark: the Ohmus advancing at nighttime, their angry eyes announcing their presence to the increasingly worried human spectators who will soon be their victims. The melting Giant Warrior: already a wounded deity at birth, because it was not ready to be born yet, dying as it takes its baby steps, killing as it was grown to kill. And yet such utilitarian purposes seem unsuited to its spectacular frame and its lofty reputation as the destroyer of civilization. There is much that is pathetic about the Giant Warrior’s brief entrance. Like a great king forced to do menial work. So much grandeur at the service of the misguided technocrat girl who orders it around. And so it melts: beautiful, disgusting, big splotches of self spilled on the hillside, and a skull slowly arising from the falling skin.

In eradicating the scenery and the post-apocalypse, the protagonist does not mean to drive the animals and the plants towards extinction, because they’re merely sick versions of their healthy counterparts. She only wants to revert things to their original state. You can say that her elated solace in the gorgeous wasteland is her admiration for the hidden, twisted beauty that still peeks through the ruins, the glimmer of the landscape that once was, now deteriorated into a hint of what it used to be, but that hint is wonderful in and of itself, a tremulous beauty besieged by its polluted present, a beauty that might fizzle out without warning and take a human life along with it. Which means we’re back to the contrasts I already mentioned, but ultimately, the reason my reaction to the film is so layered is that the contrasts don’t function as contrasts. This world is not a collection of contrasting features. It simply is: a world of uncanny wonder, a world that is remembering itself. Like old buildings, the flora in Nausicaä evokes the past. Time has ensconced itself into every pore and leaf and creek and cave. You cannot look in any direction without feeling the weight of time. It is always there in this wrinkled aging world. And the huge creatures seem to be from another age, as if they should be extinct. But they’re not, and in their anachronistic perseverance we sense that, if anything remembers the decadence and ancient glory of this world, really remembers, not just through tales and myths, but actually recalls how the descent played out, if anything remembers, it is the Ohmu. Which is why they are so majestic. They seem to carry time and memory along with them, atop their regal monumentality. They can heal, return a recently dead person to life. They communicate through some unheard language. They can determine the fate of human civilization and can stamp it out entirely if they so wish. Now, they might not actually be either deities or memory-bearers. But what matters is how we feel about them. They seem beyond understanding, either animalistic or wise depending on the situation. When we first see an Ohmu, during the aforementioned prologue, we find a left-over shell, a remain: we are introduced to them as creatures from a bygone era. We immediately discover otherwise, but their immensity gives them an aura of timelessness. They have already beaten time, they are outside of time, eternal. And they calmly observe a withering land that does not renew itself but only accumulates the passing years, one on top of the other, painting its demeanor with coats of time.

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